Catholic Primary schools and their ability to promote religious identity

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2013

18 Pages, Grade: 80% at masters level



Levels of religious practice in the United Kingdom (UK) are rapidly declining (Brierley, 2008), due to the diminishing amount of people attending church on a regular basis. Consequently, many Christian denominations are becoming part of a minority community (Wright, 2003). As a result, the UK is presented with a “gradual yet incessant erosion of religious identities of such communities” due to cultural assimilation into a broader secular culture (Wright, 2003, p.148). Due to the decline in religious identity, especially amongst the younger generation (Brierley, 2008), I intend to conduct a study into the loss of religious identity among young children and to investigate whether or not a religious school environment has the power to promote the religious identity. More specifically this study will explore the affects a Catholic Primary school has on their student’s identity and whether or not catholic schooling has the potential to promote religious identity

Initially, I will conduct a comprehensive literature review to explore the concept of religious identity and how the faith school (for the Christian denominations) environment can have on this environment. This literature review aims to explore the effects of faith schools on their student’s identity and whether or not the schools have the ability to promote the religious identity of their students. By conducting a review of relevant literature, a research question will be formulated by identifying the gaps in the research. I will then explain the methodology and ethics of my research followed by the analysis of my research findings

Literature review

Primarily, it is important to decipher the meaning of identity by which this research is set. This research will be focus on one specific strand of identity, personal identity, which Hitlin (2003, p.121) considers to be “at the core of the self”. Meaning, personal identity refers characteristics, which constitutes to the ‘make up’ of one personality (Wardekker and Miedema, 2001). Specifically, this research will focus on the extent of the religious aspects of one’s personal identity, which will be referred to as religious identity throughout the study

Firstly, in order to determine whether or not Catholic schools can preserve religious identity it is important to discover how one’s identity can be constructed. Lovheim (2004) stated that identity is constructed when an individual gains an understanding of who they are. This understanding is continuously developed throughout one’s lifetime (Lovheim, 2004; Wardekker and Miedema, 2001). Akerlof and Kranton (2002) hold the view that identity is closely linked with one’s social environment and the social category in which they belong. Additionally, Identity is largely determined by social context and especially socialisation within that social context (Jenkins, 1992; Webster, 2005). Giddens (1991) agrees that identity is influenced by others and can be altered involuntarily by peers. If this definition is correct then the children that attend catholic schools should reflect a high level of religion in their personality as they have been put into a religious social category; thus reflecting a high level of religious identity. Erikson’s (1964 Cited in Hunsberger et al, 2001, p. 366) theory of psychological development emphasised the importance of establishing a secure identity and believed religion can contribute to the emergence of this process “by offering explanations for existential issues, connections to society, and belongingness via the rites and rituals of faith”. If a Catholic school can provide grounds for this process to emerge then it is likely to contribute to the development of a religious identity; however it has been noted that this study may appear to be outdated

Psychologist David Elkind (1964), also studied the development of children’s religious identity. He found that from the age of five children are aware of their religious identity. Children of this age often understand that they are Protestant or Catholic. However, “just what children at this age mean when they make such a pronouncement” is quite different to the true meaning of their religion (Elkind, 1961, p. 36) with their understanding of religious teachings minimal (Goldman, 1964 cited in Gottlieb, 2006). Golman’s (1964) study into children’s interpretation of bible studies agreed with Elkind’s findings; by saying children do not understand the true moral reasons of these stories until they reach adolescence. More recent research agrees; Barrett (2000) stated that the central concepts to religious traditions are not opaque to children. Both Elkind and Goldman analysed there results based on Piaget’s developmental criteria and found that children at the age of seven enter the ‘concrete stage’ of religious development. At this stage children associate religious identity with certain behaviours, dress, kinship and prayer (Gottlieb, 2006). It is not until children reach adolescence that they can truly understand the ‘true’ meanings of their religious identity (Elkind, 1964; Goldman, 1961 cited in Gottlieb, 2006). Although this study deciphers the extent of children’s understanding of religious identity, it does not take into account of individual differences. Most importantly it does not answer whether or not Faith schools can affect a child’s understanding of their religious identity. Additionally, Elkind used clinical interviews to collect his evidence. Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2011), stated that interviews with children can leave discrepancies in the results as the child may feel uncomfortable and withdrawn from the situation. However, this does raise the question of, are children in Catholic primary schools too young to understand their religious identity? These findings may appear to be outdated however, applications of these ideas now “dominate religious education in British elementary schools” (Gottlieb, 2006, p.245) and are still “widely regarded to have established the existence of cognitive stages in the development of religious thinking” (p.246)

Perhaps one of the most significant studies into the religious identity of young children was conducted in the 1990’s. The Teenage Religion and Values Survey (TRVS) aimed to provide an in-depth view into “the part played by religion within lives of the young people in England and Wales” (Robbins and Francis, 2010, p.47). The study is so significant due to its large sample of 33,982 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 15 (Robbins and Francis, 2010b). Part of the study focused on religious schools in comparison to non-religious schools. The data revealed that Anglicans that attended Anglican schools demonstrated much higher levels of religious values than Anglicans that did not attend an Anglican school (Robbins and Francis, 2010). Although, this part of the study looked at the Anglican faith rather than the Catholic faith, the results still demonstrate that faith schools have the ability to preserve religious values. It can be said that a high level of religious values can lead to a high level of religious identity as Hitlin (2003, p.121) states that values are “the core” of personal identity. Additionally, within the TRVS, Francis (2002) examined students that attended Catholic schools and their values. Francis (2002) concluded that due to the significant proportion of time young people are in school, school “provides a major context in which values are formed” (Francis, 2005, p. 138). These values are shaped by the pupil’s peers that attend the school rather than the mission statement of the school. The most significant finding from Francis is that the environment at faith schools are significantly different to the environment depicted at a non-faith school with the majority of pupils attending faith schools being committed to God which Francis (2002) found to preserve the religious identity of all pupils. The above findings from the TRVS are supported by Bourdieu’s (1992) theory of Habitus. The theoretical construct of Habitus explains that a person adopts their own views and practices within specific ‘cultural fields’ within which they are embedded

The above recognises the significance of the social environment of faith schools and the affect it has on an individual’s religious identity. Casson (2011) agrees with this and regards Catholic schools, as well as the family and church, to be a place that can ‘nurture’ the next generation’s Catholic identity. However, Casson (2011) recognises that Catholic schools cannot provide the complexity of the Catholic faith that can be discovered in a committed Catholic community. However, it can be argued that faith schools provide the children with a strong sense of religious community. As Ofsted (2009, p.5) found in a survey of 51 faith schools, faith schools can provide children with a sense of “belonging to their faith community”. Similarly, Engebretson (2008) proposes that Catholic schools can enrich and complement the Catholic teachings, but it cannot be seen as a substitute. Conversely, the complexity of the Catholic faith may disappear, as Wright (2003) argues that many religious communities are struggling to keep hold of their religious identity due to the religious assimilation into the mainstream liberal culture. Shepherd (2010) disagrees that faith schools have the potential to promote a child’s religious identity. He states that “socialisation within Christian communities is largely failing as a mechanism for faith transmission one reason for this being that young people have a ‘choice’ whether to continue to believe or not” (p.143). Jackson (2003) opposes to Shepard views as he believes Catholic schools can separate identities, imposing a strict bias Catholic view of the world, which does not give children the opportunity to believe in anything other than Catholicism. Due to this separation of identities children are more likely to follow the religious practices of their fellow peers (Wardekker and Miedema, 2001), with an increase of religious participation among those who are surrounded by others in a religious group (Gruber, 2005). Schweitzer (2007) disagrees by saying that children identify themselves with adults rather than with children. Schweitzer and Boschki (2004) found that children speak of their religious identity in terms of a relationships rather than characteristics. Specifically, it was found that children say they are either a Catholic or a Protestant based on the religion of their school teacher. Therefore in order for a Catholic school to preserve the identity of young Catholics, the school “must provide time with an adult teacher with the same denominational or religious membership, adherence or outlook as the child” (Schweitzer, 2007, p.98)


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Catholic Primary schools and their ability to promote religious identity
80% at masters level
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catholic, primary, Religious identity, Identity, Primary school
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Laura Beirne (Author), 2013, Catholic Primary schools and their ability to promote religious identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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