Primary schools not the only ones affected by school patronage issue

Rite & Reason: Most second-level schools are controlled by religious orders


Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has justified the initiative to remove some primary schools from the patronage of the Catholic Church on the grounds that parents must be given a choice of schools according to their religious beliefs or lack thereof. The Minister seems to mistakenly believe that parents who wish to send their children to a second-level school where there is no religious influence have access to such schools.

In Ireland, most second-level schools are controlled, directly or indirectly, by Catholic religious orders. Community schools, which many people believe to be secular, have trustees, who, except in the case of five Church of Ireland community schools, are Catholic religious orders and vocational education committees (VECs). This situation has arisen because many community schools originated as amalgamations of religious secondary schools and vocational schools.

Community schools
When new community schools were being established, the Catholic Church insisted that they would also have religious trustees. It judged that, given the low status of vocational schools, parents were more likely to accept new schools in which the Catholic teaching orders were involved.

The principal negotiator for the church when the community schools were being established was Dr Brendan Comiskey, later to become Bishop of Ferns. Comiskey strongly resisted demands for a greater role for teachers and parents in managing community schools. Some of the first principals and teachers in the new schools were former members of the orders who were patrons of the schools.

While there are two parent representatives on the board of management of community schools, they have little influence on key decisions as they are outnumbered by the representatives of the religious orders, the teachers’ unions and the VECs .

All community schools teach religion as a core subject and have chaplains paid by the State. A challenge in the High Court by the Campaign to Separate Church and State to the payment of such chaplains was rejected. Although community schools purport to facilitate pupils who do not wish to participate in religious education, this rarely occurs.

Church involvement
Even the VEC-managed community colleges, where there is no direct church involvement, teach religion and have Catholic chaplains, although they are not paid by the State. Last year a pupil at Borrisokane Community College who subscribes to no religion publicised the fact that, while the college claimed to be non-denominational, he was forced to attend a Catholic prayer service. The school principal confirmed this had occurred, stating that students could not be exempted from the service because they would otherwise be unsupervised.

Only Protestant pupils in Ireland are guaranteed the right to attend a second-level school which conforms to their ethos.

If they cannot afford the fees to attend a Protestant boarding school, they are subsidised by taxpayers.

Several of these so-called Protestant schools now have a majority of pupils who are not Protestant, and whatever religion is taught is broad and uncontentious.

Religion addresses the meaning and purpose of life. It should therefore be taught to those who wish to learn the answers to those questions provided by Christianity and other faiths. For those who do not, schools should provide other opportunities to examine questions of meaning and morality.

Seán Byrne is a lecturer in economics at Dublin Institute of Technology

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