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.

However, it is never too late to begin again, and it is in that context that I welcome the decision of Ruairí Quinn to seek the views of parents on their choice of patron in a number of urban areas. In this regard, we are in a better and more benign situation today than we have ever been.

We have had an objective and balanced appraisal of the current ownership and patronage system carried out by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, which consulted with interested parties in an open and transparent way.

The patrons of some church-owned schools, most notably the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, have agreed that there should be a greater diversity in the system of patronage and have indicated a willingness to divest some of their schools and transfer them to a different patron.

Most important of all, we have a Minister who is willing to take on what was regarded in the past as an intransigent issue and is driving an agenda of change which finally recognises and respects the inalienable constitutional rights of parents.

The Minister has made a welcome start by seeking the views of parents in five urban areas. He is committed to expanding the survey to a further 40 urban areas. He can go further.

Many of our existing school buildings, in both rural and urban areas, are old and will require replacement in the years ahead.

As obsolete buildings become due for replacement, an opportunity will arise to seek the views of the parents in those areas on the model of patronage that they would prefer. In some cases they will opt to retain the present form of church patronage, in other cases they may well opt for a more inclusive form of patronage.

This may appear to some to be a slow form of change but the process will be democratic and over a generation or two, the balance of patronage is likely to change and the system will gradually reflect more accurately the values of the people.

ÁINE HYLANDis emeritus professor of education at University College Cork. She was a founder member of the Dalkey School Project in the 1970s and was chairwoman of Educate Together from 1989 to 1996.

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