Community national schools are a good alternative to the status quo

Opinion: Sometimes choice can be confusing, so what exactly do these schools offer parents who want change but are unsure what to do?

Recent debate about the plurality of school patronage at primary level in Ireland has been about providing choice for parents, as schools differ in terms of ethos and values.

The vast majority of primary schools are under church patronage, most of which are Catholic. The Catholic Church is being encouraged to divest some schools to other patron bodies to provide more variety and plurality of patronage. The State itself has now engaged in this process via the Education and Training Boards (ETBs), which are establishing new community national schools.

There are currently 11 such schools operating. ETBs are not new arrivals when it comes to patronage – they are patrons of some 278 multi-denominational second-level schools and colleges across Ireland. They have a long and distinguished record in meeting the needs of local communities through adult, further and continuing education and training programmes.

The State has recognised that local cultural and ethnic diversity requires a response locally in cases where the only option may be schools with Catholic patronage.

One such response is the community national school model under the patronage of local ETBs, which are statutory authorities under the governance of democratically elected boards.

Sometimes choice can be confusing, so what exactly do these schools offer communities of parents? The clue lies in the use of the word “community”, as these schools are multidenominational and cater for children of all faiths and beliefs. Families who choose these schools are from a very wide spectrum of cultural and belief backgrounds.

No distinction is made based on the life philosophies of a child’s parents when allocating school places to children within the community.

Minority groups

Opinion polls indicate that most people feel change is necessary in terms of school patronage in Ireland, yet there has been little appetite for change at local level. A reason for this may be that people are not aware of other options that they are comfortable with. Very few want to give up any part of their cultural or religious identity to accommodate minority groups.

However, most are willing to compromise as long as their identities are still celebrated and accommodated.

This is exactly what the community national school model does. As awareness of this model grows, parents and teachers will begin to see how this could be an excellent alternative to the status quo.

In community national schools, each part of a child’s identity is supported, including their religious and belief identity. Chiefly, this support is provided through the programme Goodness Me, Goodness You, which uses story to help children explore their own beliefs and those of others together.

With the support of their parents and teachers, children reflect together on the themes of the programme from their own perspective, reflecting their own belief identities and those of their peers. The programme encourages inter-belief dialogue, mutual understanding and respect.

As community national schools respond to local needs, parents can request the school to provide what these schools call “belief-specific teaching”.

For example, many Catholic parents request some work to be done around the sacraments.

All belief groups may also be catered for in this way, as the school makes every effort to meet the needs of all members of the school community. As far as possible, the school responds to the needs of parents and they do not ignore requests for support in terms of beliefs or faiths. All this is done in consultation with parents and staff.

Some vested interests have tried to claim this is segregation of children according to beliefs. The reality is that the local community is not a homogenous group and is enriched by the diversity of cultures and beliefs.

Families in a local community may or may not attend different places of worship on different days, but this does not mean they are a segregated community. They can still socialise together and their children can still play together. Respecting diversity and different beliefs systems must remain at the core of Irish society and it is at the very root of the ethos of the community national school.

As this school patronage model enhances its profile as a viable alternative patronage model, local communities will have further choice particularly when Church patrons agree to divest one of their schools in a community setting.

Training programmes

As the patron of the community national school, the ETB will draw on a long tradition of patronage at second level where they have a proud tradition of serving local communities.

This culture and tradition of inclusive community service comes from the fact that ETBs are close to their local communities and provide a vast range of education and training programmes.

The opportunity is now there for these same education and training boards to reflect their values and ethos of community service through local community national schools.

Michael Moriarty is general secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland