Surveys affirm high regard for Catholic schools
Many parents are satisfied with current school patronage arrangements
The report published yesterday by the Department of Education on school patronage is welcome. For the first time we have a careful measure of the number of parents who would avail of greater choice of school patronage if such were offered to them.
The surveys provide a notable affirmation of Catholic schools. A very large number of parents wish to have their children educated in Catholic schools. Between the pilot phase and this report, the parents in 306 Catholic schools have been surveyed. The outcome is a recommendation for change in 28 (9 per cent) of these schools.
This is not a survey in the ordinary sense of the term as it is not based on a representative sample. Rather it is a consultation process with parents. What we learned is that somewhere between 0.6 per cent of parents (in Roscrea) and 8 per cent of parents (in Portmarnock) with children in Catholic schools would avail of another form of patronage.
Some of the commentary has stated that two-thirds of parents want change. This figure is false. What the surveys demonstrate is that there is some demand for change in two-thirds of the areas surveyed. Exaggerating the figures of those who want change is of no benefit in this process. We need to convince communities that out of a sense of shared citizenship the majority should seek to facilitate a minority of parents who desire change. This is best done by accurately measuring the demand for change. It is not helped by those with various agendas suggesting that the number of parents who would avail of change is greater than it actually is.
The level of participation in the surveys is very disappointing with as few as 10 per cent of parents participating in some areas. The average level of participation is approximately 18 per cent. This figure is lower than in the pilot phase a few months ago. This would seem to confirm the findings of research undertaken by the Catholic Schools Partnership in 2011 that school patronage is not an issue of major concern for most parents.
The number of parents who say that they will avail of change is lower than expected. As a result, the report concludes that there is insufficient demand for a viable school under a different patron in 15 areas. In the other 23 areas it recommends the establishment of one school (in most cases with about 100 pupils) under a new patron. All of the partners will need to give detailed consideration to what is best in these areas as there is no one size that will fit all.
In Ballina, the total number of pupils in the 16 schools surveyed is 1,954. The parents of 44 children said they will avail of an English-language multidenominational school if such is available to them. That is 2.2 per cent of the pupils in the area. Responding to this level of demand will not be easy because these 44 children are probably scattered across 16 schools.
In seeking to respond to this limited request for change, attention must be given to the large majority who have expressed no such interest. An issue that will arise in many of these 23 areas is the level of displacement caused by trying to cater for the views of a minority who want change. Goodwill and generosity will be required on the part of all.
Those of us committed to Catholic education believe that Catholic schools have an important role to play in the future of Irish education. Today, every Catholic school needs to redefine its identity so that it is not just reacting to the latest trend or fashion but that it can truly articulate its self-understanding. In reflecting on what it is to be a Catholic school in 2013 account must be taken of sociological and demographic realities. Thus such schools will vary as they respond to the needs of the local communities in which they are embedded.
This diversity within the Catholic sector is one of its strengths, and the Catholic Schools Partnership hopes to draw on this diversity in heightening awareness among Catholic schools of the need to be inclusive of all pupils who attend such schools.
Fr Michael Drumm is chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership