Patronage report offers road map for vital change


OPINION:THE REPORT of the forum on patronage and pluralism deserves careful reading. It is a considered and thorough review of a deep and long-standing imbalance in the Irish primary school system. At the same time it is a practical road map for change. The report’s conclusions go further and “underline the urgency” for Government action.

Put simply, the report presents the growing imbalance between the choices of schools available to families in Ireland and the expressed wishes of the population. It shows the urgent need for the provision of schools that provide an alternative to the overwhelming predominance of denominational schools.

As such it provides long overdue hope for the thousands of parents all over the country who want their children to attend Educate Together schools but who either do not have a school in their locality or if they do, find there are insufficient spaces available.

The report highlights an issue that has been at the heart of Irish primary education for many years. It was this issue amongst others that spurred the foundation of the Educate Together movement in 1975 and the opening of the first school in 1978.

The Educate Together model of school is based on a legal obligation to provide “equality of access and esteem to children irrespective of their social, cultural or religious backgrounds”. Over the years, the schools have developed a curricular approach and methodology that provides a safe and supportive environment for the identity of all children.

In this environment, they learn about all the major world beliefs and engage with an advanced ethical education curriculum. At the same time, the school offers its facilities to any group of parents who wish to run optional faith-formation classes that take place outside the compulsory school day. In this way, no child is isolated as a result of the religion of their family and no teacher has to teach as religious truth a faith that they may not hold.

Facing huge institutional opposition for many years, the schools established have thrived. Today there are 60 such schools with five more opening this September. There are now more than 14,000 pupils attending Educate Together schools.

In the debate that has erupted since the publication of the report, it is easy for only the institutional voices to be heard. However, the human issue at the root of the problem is profound.

Increasing numbers of families all over our country are being placed under unacceptable pressure to send their children to schools that conflict with their preference and conscience.

Once they have their children in such schools they are again placed in the invidious position in which they must decide whether or not to ask for their child to be absented from religious content that may constitute a significant part of the school day. Many choose not to, taking their first responsibility to protect their child’s social integration with their classmates.

If they do, very often, despite the best efforts of the dedicated and caring teachers involved in the system, there is no appropriate place for them to go during such class content. Even today, lack of spaces in schools place immense pressure on parents to make religious declarations they otherwise would not be inclined to do.

The impact of this pressure on non-Catholic children in Catholic schools is illustrated in an appendix of the forum report. In a facilitated professional survey of children attending schools most – but not all – of the pupils from minority belief persuasions recorded feelings of hurt, sadness, anger, annoyance and that their identity was “disregarded” in the pervading environment of a denominational school. The survey was carried out by officials from the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and hosted in the offices of the Ombudsman for Children.

The report also emphasises the goodwill that exists between all education partners to address this issue. Educate Together endorses this view. Over many years, we have worked constructively with Catholic and Church of Ireland patrons to address the changing educational needs of communities. In this regard it is very encouraging that the report proposes for the first time in Irish society a proper mechanism whereby parental preference for school type can be recorded at pre-school age.

The profound issues identified by the forum report must be addressed with courage and urgency. Providing a balanced choice of school types in most areas of the country is possible with goodwill and the support of government. If such choices can be provided, the deeply worrying infringements of the human and intellectual rights of families can be minimised.

Such choice will benefit all in Irish education and society. It is no benefit to Catholic education to have a growing minority of unwilling attendees. In fact it must be acknowledged that the future health and vibrancy of the denominational option requires that such a choice be available in as many locations as there is viable parental demand.

Paul Rowe is chief executive of Educate Together