Ireland’s debate on education shows little appreciation of experience in other countries

Some portrayals of Catholic schools ‘more like descriptions from the 1950s’

First day of the leaving cert exam – “challenge of cultural diversity is to empower people of different ethnic, religious and philosophical heritage to work together.” PHOTOGRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL / THE IRISH TIMES

First day of the leaving cert exam – “challenge of cultural diversity is to empower people of different ethnic, religious and philosophical heritage to work together.” PHOTOGRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL / THE IRISH TIMES


The growing cultural diversity in our country is at the core of the debate on educational provision in Ireland. For better or worse, the debate focuses almost exclusively on denominational patronage in school governance, and the role of religious education.

Little attention is given to the indoctrination and lack of diversity inherent in certain dominant economic world views underpinning education policy. These world views can see students simply as human capital for job markets. Social cohesion is promoted merely to enhance economic productivity. Education success is gauged by measuring “standard of living” rather than “quality of life”.

The challenge of cultural diversity is to empower people of different ethnic, religious and philosophical heritage to work together. Education plays a key role in meeting this challenge. However, the debate is heated when individuals have conflicting approaches to diversity and we can note three – assimilation, accommodation and integration.

Excluding religion
Assimilation sees diversity as a threat, and seeks to minimise it by promoting a single culture. This means treating all students in the same way. It leads to the standardisation of curriculum and methodology in fewer, larger schools.

It seeks to exclude religion from education to avoid “divisions”, which may unintentionally promote a unified secular world view. Assimilation can also be a feature of denominational schools when they focus on “membership” and compliance to a narrow ethos as criteria for admission.

Accommodation means different groups must negotiate space for their values, based on compromise and tolerance. In local schools, parents are required to negotiate diverse approaches to religious values with the patron. Non-religious parents negotiate with denominational patrons and denominational parents negotiate accommodation with Educate Together.

Schools accommodate diverse views through exemption systems or by allowing private arrangements for faith instruction. The proposal from the Forum on Patronage to develop a new course teaching “about” religion seeks to negotiate a single approach to Religious Education rather than allowing denominational groups promote their faith.

Integration sees diversity as a value in itself and celebrates differences. It promotes citizens living and learning together, respectful of one another. This is the ideal, but as seen across Europe, it is easier said than done. In Ireland, local schools have made efforts to cater for a wide diversity of student intake, and some have been very creative.

These successes are often ignored and denominational education is blamed for the remaining problems. Intemperate and ill-informed characterisations of the schools pepper the debate. For instance, some portrayals of Catholic schools are more like descriptions from the 1950s. Little recognition is given to the fact that Catholic philosophy of education has meant fundamental changes since Vatican II.

However, its implementation is not always perfect yet no concession is made to the maxim that “an idea is not responsible for the people who believe in it”. Freedom of religion is a liberty guaranteed to each citizen and gives rise to negative and positive claims. The freedom from religion protects individuals from undue interference from others, and a freedom for religion promotes positive support in exercising a philosophical world view.

These two claims are equal.

The European Convention asserts that education will be “in conformity with” the religious and philosophical desires of parents. This is a much stronger position than a minimalist claim not to be “antagonistic” to these desires.

The growing diversity of Irish society provides a major challenge in valuing and facilitating parental choice, both in school type and in what goes on in schools. An integrating approach to diversity does not seek to remove the tension that can exist between differences. It requires that we learn to negotiate the tension and even celebrate differences as good in themselves.

Frequently, the Irish debate reflects little appreciation of how other countries achieve a balance between private and state education and how the diversity of religious experience is supported in State schools.

Responding to diversity through education requires a commitment to integration on the part of parents, patrons and the State. The rights of all three must be directed to a common vision that will only develop through an informed and respectful debate.

We haven’t had that yet. Future generations deserve it.

These issues are discussed in more detail in Fr David Tuohy’s book, Denominational Education and Politics: Ireland in a European Context, published by Veritas. The book is being launched tomorrow in the Arupe Room, Milltown Park, by Jesuit provincial Fr Tom Leyden, with speakers Archbishop Michael Jackson and Roisín Duffy of RTÉ.

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