Sir Michael Wilshaw addressed the the annual conference of the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges

Christians must stand up for their faith, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has said. Society is becoming increasingly “secular and materialistic”, and young people today can easily “lose sight of what really matters”.

Speaking to the annual conference of the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges on Friday, Sir Michael said that when he worked in schools he saw it as his duty as a teacher and a Christian to help pupils to gain values that they could live by throughout their lives.

“It was about helping them to realise they would all transgress and make mistakes at some stage in their journey through life, but that there was always a way back into God’s loving fold.

“The parable of the Prodigal Son was always my touchstone for the way I dealt with difficult situations and intransigent youngsters. As a head teacher, nothing gave me more joy and satisfaction than seeing someone who had started out badly, and been written off, coming right in the end.

“It was also about helping students to understand that by living a good life and living by Gospel values, they would eventually come to God.”

He continued: “It doesn’t need me to tell you that we are living in an increasingly secular and materialistic society where young people can so easily have their heads turned and lose sight of what really matters.

“At the same time, we are also living through an era marked by seemingly ever greater intolerance of other people’s beliefs, views and ways of living.

“Therefore, it has never been more important for Christians to stand up for their faith and for the Gospel values of love, compassion and tolerance. Not just because of what’s happening in this country, but in the context of what is happening in the Middle East and other parts of the world, where Christians are suffering brutal persecution for what they believe.”

Catholic schools should promote and celebrate their own faith, but it is also important to inform pupils about other religions, he said.

“When I led a Catholic school in the heart of an overwhelmingly Muslim area of east London, I always made sure my pupils understood and respected the fact that others followed different customs and subscribed to a different set of beliefs. We didn’t go into any great detail about other world religions, but I saw it as my obligation to teach pupils about the synergies between the great faiths and that all people are equal in the eyes of God.

“It is so important that, as Catholic leaders, we adopt this approach. All of us understand that erecting barriers and pushing others away breeds suspicion, insularity and division. This is certainly what we saw in a number of schools in Birmingham.”

Some secular and faith schools have been failed by Ofsted for failing to promote values of tolerance and respect and for narrowing the curriculum, he said.

“Let me be quite clear about this. It is perfectly legitimate for individuals and faith groups to hold firm to a particular set of values and beliefs, which may run counter to existing social norms,” he added.

“What is not legitimate is to use these beliefs to condone or even encourage intolerance and discrimination.”