Minister has turned the page on school patronage
OPINION:Quinn is driving an agenda of change that finally recognises and respects the inalienable constitutional rights of parents
FINTAN O’TOOLE states that the approach of Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn to the patronage of primary schools is disastrous.
He argues that the Minister’s approach will result in “formalised apartheid” and that everything in the Minister’s strategy is inimical to the idea of a republic. He suggests if we were in the business of building a new republic from scratch, the first thing we would do would be to educate all our children together.
But Ireland is not in the business of building a new republic from scratch, nor are we in the business of building a new education system from scratch.
If we were, it is likely that we would indeed ask, as O’Toole suggests, what kind of primary education system is best for a diverse 21st-century republic? And the answer to this question, if we are to believe the results of recent surveys, would likely be “schools in which children of all religions and none would be educated together”.
But we are starting from where we are, not from where we would wish to be. The reality of the Irish primary school system is that over 96 per cent of more than 3,000 primary schools are owned and run by the churches (over 90 per cent by the Catholic Church).
The churches entered into a legal agreement with the State at various stages over the past 180 years that the schools would be run by them and unless they voluntarily agree to divest them, these schools cannot be taken from the churches. This is the reality which we as taxpayers, and the Minister as our elected representative, have to face.
O’Toole accepts that it would not be feasible to build a whole new system of primary education, nor would such an option ever have been realistic. More than 35 years ago, when the first Educate Together school (the Dalkey School Project) was set up, there was active resistance by church and State to the sanctioning of even one such school.
In the subsequent decades, there were many obstacles to the setting up of multidenomination- al schools, but thanks to the persistence and determination of groups of parents throughout the country, there are now more than 60 Educate Together primary schools in Ireland.
Efforts were made in the 1970s, and on a number of occasions since then, to persuade successive administrations to seek the views of parents on patronage before new schools were built and automatically handed over to church control in new greenfield areas in the suburbs of growing towns and cities. This did not happen and as a result, hundreds of new buildings were vested in the churches that might well have been vested in a more inclusive patronage system or might have been put into public ownership, as is the situation in other EU countries, had the views of parents been sought.