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What is special character?

Section 10 of the Education and Training Act 2020 defines education with a Special Character as education within the framework of a particular or general religious or philosophical belief, and associated with observances or traditions appropriate to that belief

The more particular definition of Special Character is defined in each schools Integration Agreement as:

The school is a Roman Catholic school in which the whole school community, through the general school programme and in its religious instructions and observances, exercises the right to live and teach the values of Jesus Christ. These values are as expressed in the Scriptures and in the practices, worship and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, as determined from time to time by the Roman Catholic Bishop of the diocese.

The following phrases in the above statement are significant:

  • Roman Catholic: In stating that the school is Roman Catholic, the definition asserts that the fundamental motive that drives the school is religious and Catholic.
  • School community: The school community includes the students, their parents (who are the foremost educators of their children), the teaching and non-teaching staff and the Board. The Proprietor is pre-eminently a member of the school community. Because the school is an integral part of the pastoral ministry of the Church, its community comprises the local church led by the Bishop of the diocese. The parish school actualises the local church in the parish.
  • General school programme: By referring to “the general school programme” as well as the “religious Instruction and observances”, the definition stresses that the religious goals of the school must not be separated from its other educational goals. Each is embedded in the other; each “exercises the right to live and teach the values of Jesus Christ”.
  • Values: The “values of Jesus Christ” are expressed in scripture and in living Catholic tradition. They are normally identified in the school’s charter and are unabashedly Christian being sourced from the gospels. The precept “to love God above all things and one’s neighbour as oneself” sums up the values of Jesus Christ. Values and virtues education in a Catholic school is fundamental to the life of the school. All staff in a Catholic school are expected to model these values and virtues in their behaviour and to teach and proclaim them to their students.
  • Bishop’s determination: Finally, the statement says that it is the Bishop of the diocese who has the ultimate responsibility for determining whether the practices, worship and teachings in the school are indeed Catholic. The Bishop of the diocese (in union with the Pope and all other Catholic Bishops) exercises the Church’s teaching authority. In New Zealand the Bishop of each diocese acts together under the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (NZCBC).
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The nature of Catholic Character

In a Catholic school the special character is also known as the Catholic Character. This is not something that is simply added on to what would otherwise be a secular state school. Nor does it merely refer to religious education, ceremonies and observances. The Catholic Character is the framework within which the whole school curriculum is delivered; it is, in fact, integral to everything that takes place in the school, or on behalf of the school and its community. Properly observed and practised, it also provides a climate of hope, inspiration and service for all members of the school community.

In 2014 the NZ Catholic Bishops Conference addressed The Catholic Education of School-Age Children to parents, trustees, school principals and staff, priests and chaplains, and diocesan education staff. This is the Bishops’ most recent guide on the work of Catholic education in New Zealand. It includes the following quotes:

Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others. Pope John Paul II, from his 1979 address to Catholic educators in the US

First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. Pope Benedict XVI in 2008

The following examples illustrate how the scope and influence of Catholic Character permeate every aspect of school life.


As part of its role in the teaching mission of the Church, the Catholic school is an integral agent in the evangelising mission of the Catholic Church. This means that it proclaims the Gospel as a means of bringing people to Christ.

It is important not to confuse evangelisation with proselytisation. The first teaches people about Jesus Christ in the hope that they will accept him, follow his teachings and grow in relationship with him. Whether they do or not is left to their free will and conscience, guided by the working of the Holy Spirit. The second, which attempts to convert someone from one faith or Church to another, has no place in a Catholic school.

Schools are required to have a planned approach to evangelisation that allows for people to be invited into the Church, and a sacramental programme for students that involves parents and families. Evangelisation can occur quite informally, through the example set by people living Christian lives; during formal school lessons; or through organised courses made available through or by the school, outside of normal school hours, to anyone who is interested.

Spiritual guidance

The Catholic school recognises that every person has a spiritual dimension. Just as our physical, intellectual and other dimensions need guidance and nurturing, so does our spiritual aspect. Catholic schools provide this through such group activities as liturgies (Mass, etc.), communal prayer (which is an important part of the daily life of a Catholic school), retreats, or through individual support in the form of counselling, youth or peer ministry, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and so on. This guidance, nurturing and support may be provided by appropriate staff members, school chaplains or peers.

Pastoral care

This term applies to the spiritual aspects of the curriculum. As in other state schools, however, it also means catering for the material, physical or emotional wellbeing of people, both within and outside the school community. Pastoral care encompasses guidance counselling as well as service to others through activities such as peer ministry, fundraising for overseas aid programmes and mission fields, and helping and ‘reaching out’ to groups within the local community (such as the elderly).

These service activities develop practical skills in the givers and have practical benefits for the receivers. Also, and most importantly, they are a valuable means of character training for students – a major function of Catholic education.

Social justice

In keeping with the teachings and the example of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church places great emphasis on meeting human needs caused by poverty, oppression, exploitation, injustice and other denials of human rights. Social justice teaching is an essential part of religious education. It is also applied in practice through the school’s and students’ involvement in such organisations as Caritas (the Church’s agency for justice, peace and development). As well as human rights, environmental and sustainability issues have a strong social justice component.

Particular Catholic Character or charism

The Catholic Character of every school includes the particular religious values or charism that were identified when the school was established. These may link the school to a particular religious institute or saint. The charism may be defined in the Integration Agreement. Whether it is so defined or not, in every case the school works to maintain and develop its particular charism, which is the lens through which Catholic Character may be viewed in the school.

Church festivals and feast days

Catholic schools recognise and celebrate certain feasts and seasons of the liturgical year (such as Christmas and Easter) and the periods leading up to them (such as the four weeks of Advent and the six weeks of Lent). Other important days in the Church calendar are also celebrated, including the feast day of the saint or person after whom the school is named.

Supporting documents

Catholic Character is supported by the Code of Ethics for Catholic Schools, and The Declaration which has been made available to all schools. (See Resources section for these documents on the NZCEO website).

The Catholic Special Character Review and Development Document describes the expected outcomes from the above activities.

The Catholic Education of school aged children is also a useful resource and found on the Resources section of the NZCEO Handbook website at

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Philosophy of Catholic schools

Catholic schools are established to carry out the Church’s mission. They provide a Catholic Faith environment that enables young people to develop the attitudes, knowledge and skills to become active and committed members of the Faith Community and to contribute positively to the world community.

The philosophy of Catholic schools in New Zealand is based on a Catholic understanding of Christianity. Catholic state-integrated schools live and teach the values of Jesus Christ, as expressed in the scriptures and in the practices, worship and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference act in unison in determining the essentials of Catholic philosophy and its underpinning values.

The following values are fundamental for Catholic schools and can be found in the “Virtues and values in New Zealand Catholic Schools” guide. This guide provides a framework by which teachers, trustees and leaders in Catholic schools may better understand the important role virtues play in Catholic schools. It defined virtues and values, provides examples of gospel values, puts them in the contest of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and provides practical steps schools can take to adopt and embrace gospel driven values.:

  • The development of the spiritual, intellectual, moral, emotional, physical and social dimensions of students, since authentic human life and openness to God are inseparable.
  • The search for excellence as an integral part of the Christian message.
  • Evangelisation – that is, the encouragement to grow towards the vision of human life and wellbeing that God revealed in Christ, as expressed by the Church.
  • A culture of love, based on God’s love for us, that enables each person to develop the inner autonomy of self-love, self-discipline and self-direction so that they can love God and others and respect the rights, freedoms and intrinsic worth of all other people.
  • Moral principles based on the teaching of Christ and the dictates of right reason and put into practice in every aspect of life.
  • Religious Education programmes that challenge each student and deepen their understanding of Catholic teaching.-
  • Education that is inclusive and that focuses on:
  • the development of each individual’s unique talents
  • students and families with particular needs
  • the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi
  • multicultural issues.
  • Service – the will and vision to contribute a Catholic dimension to the development of the values and wellbeing of the wider community.
  • Co-operation and solidarity, as principles of right relations with all members of the school and wider community.
  • Parish interaction, which builds up the community of the Church and supports parents, teachers and students.
  • Social justice in the face of discrimination, and commitment to an option for the poor at the local, national and international levels.
  • Leadership that enhances the life of the Church and the wellbeing of the national and international community.

Religious Education

The NZ Catholic Bishops Conference (NZCBC) has determined that Catholic schools will follow a national curriculum for Religious Education at both primary and secondary level. The National Centre for Religious Studies (NCRS) is the agency of the NZCBC has developed this curriculum in consultation with schools.

The amount of time schools should devote to Religious Education at various year levels has also been set down by the NZCBC (see downloadable pdf in Resources section). Boards are responsible for ensuring that professional development, school budgets, staffing allocation and timetabling allow these requirements to be met.

Drug and sexuality education

These topics are covered in all schools, usually through the health and physical education programme. However, in Catholic schools sexuality is normally part of the Religious Education programme, because of the important moral dimensions of this topic. Health educators and Religious Education teachers need to collaborate closely in these curriculum areas. It is important that Boards ensure funding for teachers to take part in Having life to the Full, a professional development course for teachers in Catholic schools. This requirement is set out in Section 91 of the Education and Training Act 2020.

Counselling and health services

On behalf of all Proprietors, NZCEO has published model policies for Boards on school counselling services and school-based health services (see downloadable pdf in Resources section). NCRS can provide supporting materials for the Health curriculum.

External health educators

External health educators invited to work in the school need to be carefully scrutinised and due diligence undertaken. In addition they need to be well briefed about Catholic Character and authorised by the principal and the Board. The parameters for externally provided health education need to be defined and monitored, as some organisations may wish to teach material that is not acceptable in a Catholic school.

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Professional development for Catholic Character

All teachers in Catholic primary and secondary schools are expected to engage in professional development in Catholic Character and/or Religious Education. The NZ Catholic Bishops Conference requires teachers in primary schools to undertake 12 hours of professional development in Religious Education and spiritual formation each year (see Resources section on the NZCEO Handbook website). The Board must ensure that the school’s professional development budget meets these requirements.

Each Diocesan Catholic Schools’ Office and Religious Education Centre can provide support and professional development in relation to Catholic Character for beginning teachers, teachers new to Catholic schools, principals, Boards and Proprietor’s appointees.

They also offer professional development in the Religious Education curriculum, mainly to teaching staff. This may be in the form of residential, day or evening courses.

Most dioceses offer a catechetical programme that provides professional development in Religious Education, scripture and theology at a university College of Education.

The Catholic Institute provides courses and qualifications that support teachers’ knowledge and understanding of Catholic Character such as NZ Certificate in Christian Studies. These courses are available throughout the country (see

The NZ Catholic Bishops Conference desires all teachers in Catholic schools to gain qualifications in Catholic Character and Religious Education.

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The NZ Catholic Bishops Conference has set up a national certification system for teachers in Catholic Character and Religious Education. The handbook for certification is available from NCRS or the diocesan office.

Each diocese runs its own professional development programme, but the certificate is awarded by NCRS. A full record of each teacher’s certification is kept at the diocesan offices. Each school and diocesan office also holds a copy of the Certification Schedule.

Certification in Religious Education

Classroom Level

This is the minimum level for those teaching Religious Education in a primary school.

Leadership Level in Religious Education

This is the minimum level required of those holding or aspiring to the positions of Principal or Director of Religious Studies, and those in other significant leadership positions in Catholic schools.

Graduate Level in Religious Education

This level is for teachers, principals and DRS who have completed appropriate graduate studies.

Certification in Catholic Special Character

Foundation Level

This is the basic level required of all teaching staff in a Catholic school. It is achieved by attending courses for teachers new to Catholic schools that have been organised by the diocese.

Classroom Level

This is the level required of all teachers holding tagged positions who do not teach Religious Education. Teachers holding non-tagged positions who do not teach Religious Education may also apply for this level.

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Safeguards to maintain Catholic Character

The Education and Training Act 2020 (Schedule 6, Clause 1)protects the school’s special character by ensuring that:

  • the school shall continue to have the right to reflect the special character of its education through its teaching and the conduct of its staff
  • integration shall not jeopardise the special character of an integrated school
  • the Proprietor shall continue to have:
  • the responsibility to supervise the education with a special character
  • the right to determine what is necessary to preserve and safeguard the special character
  • if in the Proprietor’s opinion the school’s special character is threatened, the Proprietor may invoke its powers under Part 33 of the Education Act.

Review and evaluation of the Catholic Character

The vital importance of the Catholic character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that it is regularly audited, reviewed and evaluated. Reviews are both internal and external.

Annual internal evaluation

Schools generally undertake internal self-reviews of Catholic Character in a 3-year cycle that is part of their normal review process. The national Catholic Special Character Evaluation and Development document (see the NZCEO website) guides Boards in conducting this process. Help and guidance is also available from the Diocesan Catholic Education Offices.

Internal evaluation also results from the obligation of the Proprietor’s appointees on the Board to present the Proprietor with an annual report on special character matters (see Resources section below.) Ideally, this involves the other members of the Board to some extent, since the Board has a collective responsibility to maintain the school’s special character.

The Board must also provide the Proprietor with an Annual Compliance Attestation that shows how it complies with its statutory obligations in the area of special character. The attestation form is available from the Proprietor or can be found in the National Catholic Special Character Review and Development document.

External Evaluation

External evaluations of the Catholic Character are conducted by mandated diocesan reviewers every 3–4 years. These evaluations are based on the Catholic Special Character Review and Development document and use its format.

The Education Review Office (ERO) is legally required to monitor the special character of all state-integrated schools as part of its regular review process. Liaison between ERO and Proprietors at both national and local levels facilitates these reviews.

Schools are expected to respond to the recommendations in the evaluation reports and prepare an action plan for their implementation. The Diocesan Education Office provides support for this.