Multi-denominational education - here to stay


WHEN DEIRDRE O'Donoghue, who is a Quaker, opted to send her three children to a multi-denominational school, she did so be cause she felt that neither Catholic nor Church of Ireland national schools would adequately meet their needs.

"As Quakers we are a small minority and tend to be classed as `other'. I didn't want my children having to leave the religious classes and growing up feeling different or, excluded. However, I do want them to have an understanding of other people's faiths and religions and to grow up believing that everyone's view is valid," she says. The South City School Project, which was then- based in the Dublin suburb of Crumlin, was the ideal school for her children, she felt.

Most of us accept unquestioningly that our children will attend either local Church of Ireland or Catholic national schools. The fact that the churches own and partly fund the schools, which we consider to be part of the `free' state education system, goes over most of our heads. And the view that the state has a duty to provide free non-denominational education for those families who wish it, is an argument that few of us even consider.

However, an increasing number of parents wishing to avoid denominational education - for a range of reasons - are banding together to establish schools where children from a variety of faiths, beliefs and backgrounds can be educated together.

When the national school system was first introduced to Ireland in 1831, it was intended that both Catholic and Protestant children would be educated together, but by the middle of the century, the churches had ensured that the system was effectively a denominational one.

The new wave of multi-denominational schools only hit Ireland in 1975, with the establishment of-the Dalkey School Project. Dr Aine Hyland who is UCC's professor of education, is a founder member of the project and fought long and hard to get that first school off the ground.

"It was a real nightmare," she recalls, "but it was groundbreaking... In the early stages some people believed that we were doing something wrong and we were treated as if we were subversives or had horns and cloven hooves."

Multi-denominational education has come a long way since then and almost 3,000 children are now educated in the sector. Today there are 14 schools - seven in the Dublin area between Sutton and Bray, two in Cork including Gaelscoil na Ghoirt Alainn, and one each in Limerick, Galway, Sligo, North Kildare and Kilkenny. There are more in the pipeline.

Initially, some elements in the Catholic Church were opposed to multi-denominational education - Bishop Comiskey, for example, criticised the concept of integrated schooling as recently as 1990. "The Catholic Church views many of these new types of schools with a definite lack of enthusiasm," he said.

But Educate Together, which is the umbrella organisation for the schools, notes a softening of attitudes. "We acknowledge the right of all parents to choose the type of education they want for their children," says Sister Eileen Randles who is secretary of the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association. "From the beginning of their existence we publicly supported the campaign of Educate Together to gain formal recognition," she says.

Multi-denominational schools all operate within the national school system. They are co-educational have democratic management structures and adopt a child-centred approach to education. Children are enrolled on a first come first served basis. The schools' religious education core-curriculum examines a variety of different religions and beliefs.

OUR religious core curriculum celebrates life and society and its many religious and ethical differences," explains Tom Conaty who is teacher/principal at the 18-month-old Crumlin School Project, which is based in Inchicore, Dublin. "A huge part of the core curriculum is the empowerment of children - giving them a sense of self-worth and enabling them to deal with issues they will face in life - like loss, bereavement, personal health, stay-safe and substance abuse."

The biggest hurdle faced by any group of parents bent on establishing a multi-denominational school is funding. The funding arrangements are the same as those for denominational national schools, but the problems of raising the local contribution is much greater for the multi-denominational school lacking a parish structure.

The Department of Education pays - as it does in all national schools - teachers' salaries, and makes an annual running costs grant of £45 per pupil. All remaining costs have to be paid for by the parents.

Schools which have obtained "permanent recognition " by the Department are eligible to claim capital grants of 85 per cent of building or renovation costs, but if they are building they have to pay for the full cost of the site. This is the same as with denominational schools. However, Educate Together says that the Government is discriminating against its schools and is considering legal action.

The descrimination arises, they claim, because it takes up to five years for multi-denominational schools to get full recognition from the Department, only then can they get sanction for the building grant, though in the meantime the Department usually pays - retrospectively - half the cost of temporary rented accommodation. Denominational schools tend not to have this long wait to receive immediate capital funding for new schools, they argue.

The Department has a tendency to wait and see if the multi-denominational effort is "viable". However, when a new housing estate is built, a denominational school is provided immediately.

In the case of denominational schools, the parish provides the site and 15 per cent of the building costs. For voluntary multi-denominational committees to raise the equivalent - which can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds - is a huge problem.

At present though, even finding good, affordable rented premises is a problem, says Educate Together. Annual rents can cost up to £10,000, according to Deirdre O'Donoghue who is co-ordinator of Educate Together. Many of the schools are housed in "quite grotty accommodation" according to one observer. Some schools are overcrowded and say that they are forced to turn hundreds of children away.

In September 1994, the Crumlin School Project started off in a disused clothing factory in Kilmainham, Dublin.

"About a dozen parents went in and painted walls and scrubbed floors - we did all the work ourselves. We scrounged tables and chairs from a nearby school that was replacing its furniture," says James Stafford who is chairperson of the school's board of management.

The one-teacher school (current enrolment 22), which is now housed in good quality but temporary accommodation in Inchicore, operates on a shoe-string.

"There are only 14 families in the school, which makes fund-raising difficult," he says. Schools like Crumlin in areas of mixed local authority and private housing, give a lie to the charge that Educate Together, is an elitist, middle-class movement. But the fact remains that it is far easier for affluent middle-class parents to raise funds to establish and run a school.

"The acid test will come when a group of working class parents with no resources demands an alternative to denominational education. What happens then? Will the Minister have an obligation to provide that choice?", asks Conaty.

ONE major gripe of many multi-denominational parents is the fact that large amounts of unused denominational school space remain unavailable to them. "It's crazy that we should be expected to become property owners when so many classrooms are lying empty," complains one parent.

When the Church of Ireland national school that was occupied by the South City School Project in Crumlin burned down three years ago, the school was refused local accommodation in Catholic national school classrooms and eventually became the tenant of the Department of Education in the old Loreto national school in Rathfarnham. But according to Sister Eileen Randles, it is impractical to expect two entirely different schools to operate out of the one building. "I have experienced it at post-primary," she says, "and it is horrendous.

Given the White Paper's commitment to developing a more pluralistic and democratic education system, the state should play a greater role in supporting multi-denominational education, argues Dr Jill Steer who is Educate Together's chairperson.

The level of all primary school funding is totally inadequate, but multi-denominational schools labour under a further disadvantage since they lack the type of parish support that is available to the denominational sector. A mechanism must be found to transfer empty denominational school properties to multi-denominational use, she says. And Educate Together, if it is to run a professional organisation, needs considerably more than the core funding of £l,000 which for the last three years it has received annually from the Department.

At post-primary level practically all secondary schools are denominational while all vocational schools are non-denominational. Community/comprehensive schools are also managed along denominational lines though there tends to be quite a mix of denominations among pupils. Is it likely that second-level will be targetted next by those interested in multi-denominational education as a natural extension of their work at primary level?