Protection of minority faith schools is vital

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

FUNNY, HOW we often think we Irish are exceptional. For example, recently there has been a concerted attempt to paint denominational education as some kind of embarrassing hangover which has no place in a modern democracy.

Yet the Netherlands, so often described as a role model to follow in other ways, enshrines “freedom of education” in its constitution. People have the right to found schools based on religious, ideological or educational beliefs. Two-thirds of Dutch primary school age children attend denominational schools, mostly Catholic and Protestant, though there are also Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and humanist schools. All these schools are funded by the state.

Henk Vos, director of VGS – an organisation which supports boards and directors of Dutch Christian schools – spoke this week at an Iona Institute seminar. (I am a patron of Iona.) He made it clear that denominational schools are highly regarded by Dutch parents. These schools must meet educational standards set by the state, but they have a considerable degree of freedom to promote a distinctive ethos.

All agree there are too many Catholic schools in Ireland. Indeed, it was the Catholic Church which started the debate about school patronage when Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said there was a need for greater diversity in primary education in the Dublin archdiocese.

Diversity means respecting difference, and it is great to see, for example, the growth of Educate Together schools, which bring a much-needed alternative. However, as Fr Michael Drumm said with his usual incisiveness at the same Iona conference, there are two types of pluralism. One “is the recognition of the right to existence of contradictory truth claims (for example, Christianity, Islam, atheism) while ideological pluralism is the insistence that the only truth is pluralism”.

Few would agree there are too many Protestant schools. Although the Church of Ireland is the second biggest patron body, it is tiny in comparison to the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Church of Ireland is being affected by several factors – not quite a perfect storm, but very worrying for the long-term viability of their schools.

For example, the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism raised questions about rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, which says “a religious ethos should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”.

Like many other provisions in the rules, this needs revisiting. But the advisory group seemed to suggest it be revisited in a way that would make maintaining a specific religious ethos impossible. In short, one size would be presumed to fit all schools, and that size would be ideological pluralism.

Being able to maintain a distinctive ethos is important for a minority community. The Church of Ireland is very proud of its broad-based Christian education, and like the majority of Roman Catholic schools, is welcoming and inclusive of children of other faith perspectives and none.

However, there is a danger that Church of Ireland schools will be seen as mere collateral damage in a battle to wrest control of schools from the Catholic Church. How ironic that would be – to destroy a minority church’s involvement in education in the name of increasing diversity.

But even more worrying is that Bishop Richard Clarke has recently asked whether an “intentional dismantling of denominational education for minorities by attrition and strangulation” was going on.

For example, Church of Ireland schools will be disproportionately affected by the push to “rationalise” the large numbers of small schools.

Some 65 per cent of the 174 Church of Ireland schools in the Republic will lose a mainstream class teacher due to recent cutbacks. Given that so many are already two-teacher schools, it means many parents will no longer see the schools as viable.

Amalgamation is not an option, because there won’t be another C of I school nearby.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the same Minister for Education presiding over the dismantling of minority faith schools seems unconvinced of the need to retain history as a core subject in the new Junior Certificate.

There has always been a laudable desire that the Republic should not be a “cold house” for Protestants. But if we no longer need to know our history, or any other history, except in what David Cameron described as “tapas-style bites”, it is no wonder we can risk severely damaging Church of Ireland schools.

In George Orwell’s 1984, the party slogan is “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The government of Oceania mercilessly rewrote history to allow it to continue to control the people. But you can do much the same job simply by encouraging cultural amnesia.

Ruairí Quinn served in government with Garret Fitzgerald. He applauded him as a “great force for modernisation and tolerance”. Maybe he should reread what Garret wrote in 1996, the last time Labour proposed to ditch history. “To deprive our children in their maturing teenage years of the opportunity to see the past in context and to understand whence they themselves have come, and how the world has changed, would be a betrayal of our heritage, culture and history.”

To deprive children of their right to a distinctive Christian education would also be a betrayal.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.