Keeper of the school gate


THE EDUCATION PROFILE: FR MICHAEL DRUMM, CHAIRMAN OF THE CATHOLIC SCHOOLS PARTNERSHIP:In the school-patronage battle, is Fr Michael Drumm the ‘soft face of a hard line’ or a pragmatist who will help deliver real change in Irish schools?

TRANSFER OF SCHOOL patronage is already a hot topic. Some people see Fr Michael Drumm, brother of the former HSE boss Brendan, as the face of Catholic resistance. Others say he is simply a voice of reason on a complex issue. Either way, Drumm is poised to become one of the best-known figures in Irish education over the next year.

As chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, an umbrella support group for those involved in Catholic education, Drumm is essentially a spokesman for the side that stands to lose in the proposed patronage shake-up. He is representing the Catholic stakeholders at the Forum of Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.

Almost 90 per cent of the State’s 3,000 primary schools are run by the Catholic Church. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn envisages that 50 per cent of these could be transferred to other patrons, and he wants the process to start quickly, by January next year.

A position paper that Drumm launched last month counselled caution. In response to the figure of 50 per cent, he pointed out that nobody has a real idea of what the final percentage will be but speculated that it could be closer to 10 per cent.

The timeline was unrealistic, too, he warned. Drumm stressed the importance of consultation with schools and parents, urging a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach when deciding whether patronage needs to be transferred.

The tone taken was measured, but response to the position paper was hugely divided. “Drumm is a soft face for the hard-line,” says one source. “This is the bishops’ attempt to take control of the issue. Sure, it all sounds very reasonable, and they say they’re more than happy to divest patronage, but the conditions they’re sticking on to that mean that it’s never going to happen.”

“If this were to become a game of percentages it would be a disaster,” says another. “Schools and communities are much more complex than that. Drumm is simply being realistic. Quinn’s proposals and the timeline involved are not well thought out.”

The real story, others speculate, is somewhere in between: that Drumm is the man to move things forward without alienating the more conservative elements within the church. “People have no idea of the diversity of opinion within Catholic education itself,” says one observer. “There are huge differences in how different bishops and dioceses view schools. In some places the chairpersons of school boards of management are mainly lay people because the bishops have seen the writing on the wall and have an open attitude. In others nothing has changed.”

“Some of the bishops are princes in their own kingdoms, answerable only to Rome,” says another. “They refuse to acknowledge the inevitable. Drumm’s job is to represent all of these different people while bringing everyone along.”

With the patronage debate simmering – even before it becomes a real issue for schools and parents to negotiate – there is little doubt that Drumm is about to become very well known indeed. In the small world of Irish education he has, up to now, kept quite a low profile. “Ah, the mystery man!” exclaims one education insider when his name is mentioned. “He’s quiet and unassuming,” says a colleague. “He’s a very good spokesperson when approached. He just wouldn’t be one to blow his own trumpet.”

From Manorhamilton, in Co Leitrim, Drumm was the youngest of six. His father managed a creamery and his mother worked at home. His father was involved in the somewhat controversial establishment of the local comprehensive school before the family moved to Sligo.

Despite having no history of second level education in the family, the children were high achievers. Two brothers became doctors, including Brendan; another brother also joined the priesthood. One sister works in a bank and another became a teacher.

Drumm was ordained in 1986. He was a stellar student, gaining a first-class degree in history and philosophy from University College Cork as well as graduating top of his HDip class in Galway. He also studied theology as a postgraduate student in Rome.

As a lecturer at Mater Dei Institute of Education, in Dublin, he carved out a reputation as a distinguished sacramental theologian, writing a number of books on the subject. He took over as the institute’s director in 2000, just after it became a college of Dublin City University, and he has overseen the strengthening of links between the two institutions.

“His experience in Mater Dei will stand him in very good stead in his current role,” says a colleague. “He came into contact with all areas of education, and he has a very deep knowledge not only of current issues but also of the history involved. He really understands how things came to be in education.”

The patronage debate was essentially triggered by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation some years ago, and continued by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who acknowledged that the church was over-represented in Irish education.

Much has been made of the divide between what Martin has said and the Catholic Schools Partnership’s position paper, which was seen by some as a rowing back by the rest of the hierarchy. Most agree, however, that the real challenge in the patronage debate is not in the differences among the Catholic stakeholders but in what will happen when communities and parents have to discuss the transfer of patronage as it applies to their schools.

“I certainly think there will be a difference in how this issue of the transfer of patronage received on the ground,” says one observer. “Divesting of patronage might be fine in Dublin 4, but it may be an issue of great difficulty in, say, Castlebar or Tralee. If you have five schools in a town, who gets transferred to State control? I suspect there will be a large element of Nimbyism throughout all of this.”

Everyone, including the Catholic Schools Partnership, acknowledges that change is inevitable. The extent of the change and how it will come about is to be decided by the patronage forum. “Drumm has displayed great leadership in the CSP role so far,” says a colleague. “You simply aren’t going to please everybody in a situation like this, but if you talk to everybody, even those people with whom you dont agree, you take the sting out of the change. Drumm talks to everybody, he listens to everybody and then he takes the lead. That’s his real strength.”

The Catholic Schools Partnership position

The Catholic Schools Partnership was established in 2009 by the Episcopal Conference and the Conference of Religious in Ireland. Chaired by Fr Michael Drumm, the CSP council has 32 other members, representing dioceses and Catholic schools and organisations.

The position paper was written after eight months of consultation with stakeholders. It sets out a vision for Catholic education and emphasises the need for an ideological as well as a practical debate, making the point that there is “no such thing as a value neutral education”. It also warns against imposing changes to patronage on schools against their will and urges a consultative, bottom-up approach.

The paper backs a series of pilot projects to examine public demand for change, but notes the logistical difficulties and the costs involved in school transfer.

It does, however, accept that there were areas where existing schools may no longer be viable as Catholic institutions. “In such situations the Catholic patron, in dialogue with the local community, should plan for greater diversity of school provision in that area. If sufficient demand for a school under different patronage can be demonstrated then all of the stakeholders should work in partnership towards this goal.”

The paper was published as part of an ongoing consultation process on the future of Catholic schools in the Republic of Ireland. The results of this consultation will be analysed at four regional assemblies in June, after which the Catholic Schools Partnership will present the findings of its research to the public.