Religious education differs vastly from faith formation
Patron bodies are so familiar a feature of Irish education that it’s hard to imagine what life for our schools would be like without them. What would happen if the churches, the VECs, Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta were no longer to feature in Irish schooling? Who would do the work these bodies are doing now?
A short answer to a searching question is that the work would have to be reconceived and carried out by public education authorities. This would also mean amending the 1998 Education Act, which still retains the concept of “patron” and makes no mention of public education authorities.
There are critical differences between a patron body and a public education authority. In Ireland, patron bodies took shape even before the establishment of the national school system in 1831 – a policy endeavour that succeeded on many fronts but not in its declared purpose “to unite in one system children of different creeds”.
Public education authorities in more than a few countries have periodically embraced strident political doctrines, sometimes acting as if they were secular variants of aggressive patron bodies. But their proper role in a democracy is to ensure that education is recognised, provided for and protected, as a distinct practice in its own right. An impressive example of how public education authorities can build strong traditions of reciprocal trust with communities in a pluralist democracy is provided by Finland over the last three to four decades (See Finnish Lessons, by Pasi Sahlberg, 2011).
Of course, Ireland is not Finland. Traditions of civic engagement – as distinct from community commitment – are weaker in Ireland than in many other European countries. But the Republic’s schools, by and large, including faith schools, are non-sectarian. This is chiefly due to the commitment of teachers to practices that are defensible on educational grounds, whatever the nature of the patron body. It is also due to a widespread pragmatism – mainly caring, sometimes more calculating – among school managements.
But problems now loom larger. School managements and teachers have to make increasingly demanding accommodations. And misgivings about the denominational nature of so much of Irish schooling are increasing among parents.
The Government’s response, rather than encouraging a greater plurality within all schools, seems to be promoting a greater plurality of schools, and leaving the notion of school patronage intact. Perhaps no other course of action appears practicable at present. But the future frequently confounds the wisdom of the present, even making “non-starters” suddenly timely. Let me conclude with a recent telling example.
Former German chancellor Willy Brandt, when asked about the prospects of a reunited Germany, replied that he could envisage it only as the final step in a united Europe. Germany has been one country now for 22 years. The EU remains divided on many fronts. Percipient policymaking appreciates the crooked paths of history are replete with surprises.
* Dr Pádraig Hogan is a senior lecturer in the education department of NUI Maynooth