The religious and lay of the land: school ethos in flux

The departure of teaching religious from education has been dramatic. What is the impact on ethos at a time of social change?

The presence of religious personnel in Irish schools has been diminishing for decades, falling from 3,700 at postprimary level in 1970 to just 30 in full-time teaching positions today. However, while their day-to-day involvement in schools has all but disappeared, their influence has not.

Following a period of appraisal and consultation during the 1990s, religious orders began to establish trusts (predominantly comprising lay people) to retain and further the denominational character of their schools, which account for about 96 per cent of all State-funded schools at primary level and 56 per cent at post-primary level. That responsibility has since been enshrined in the Education Act of 1998.

"An outsider looking at the statistics of such an extraordinary decline in religious personnel might say, 'My heavens above, there's been a huge transition in Irish schooling,' " says Prof John Coolahan, who chaired the forum on patronage and pluralism.

“But they’d be wrong. I think the churches have been very careful and, from their point of view, very wise in ensuring there are frameworks in place to carry forward a great deal of the responsibility previously held by large numbers of nuns, brothers and priests. The ongoing situation will be different, however, given how much society has been changing in terms of population and religious belief.”


That tide of change has forced denominational schools to examine their ethos and founding intention, says Fr David Tuohy, a Jesuit priest and educationalist who has worked as a consultant with various religious congregations.

“Before, it was assumed the religious knew what it was all about and would run things a particular way,” he says. “But as society has become more secularised, teachers have become more secularised. Even some of the ways in which the religious themselves look at their schools has changed.”

Latest research

In an effort to gauge how Catholic voluntary secondary schools see themselves today, Fr Richard Byrne, principal of Terenure College, interviewed 37 principals across the archdiocese of Dublin. This research, part of Byrne's PhD in education at UCD, is the first of its kind in Ireland.

“What I found was the schools weren’t all the same, that there was a continuum of Catholicity,” he says, explaining how he divided this spectrum into three categories.

One-third qualified as “faith-visible” schools, who put Catholicism at the forefront of their identity.

Then there was the “uncertain” group, comprising just under 10 per cent, who saw no real difference between themselves and non-Catholic schools. The rest were grouped as transitional: although they considered themselves Catholic, they placed greater emphasis on academics than on a consistent or distinctive identity. Byrne believes this middle group will gradually drift toward either end of the spectrum.

In the case of the “faith-visible” schools, he noted some lay principals felt less prepared than their religious predecessors. “They had taken on the role of principal, which means being an academic leader, facilitating change, all the normal things you’d expect,” he says. “But suddenly foisted on some of them, they felt, was this concept of also having to be a faith leader. They hadn’t received any training for that, which would be quite a common issue across the world for lay principals in Catholic schools: ‘We need training, we need formation.’ ”

That’s not to say they haven’t excelled in that role, Byrne adds. Despite lacking a background in theology, catechetical training or even religious teaching, many lay principals were determined to embrace their school’s ethos and assert aspects of its character that may have been taken for granted previously.

“I think there were a lot of principals sincerely trying to emphasise Catholic education,” says Byrne. “But I do wonder if they were also trying to maintain a Catholic ‘brand’ to distinguish themselves from other schools, particularly when there’s a decline in pupil numbers.

“Schools at the other end of the spectrum were saying, ‘Look, we’re not Catholic’, yet they weren’t prepared to let the Catholic label go. Perhaps they were reluctant to drop it publicly because there was still some residue of a selling point they didn’t quite want to get rid of.”

This question of how a school perceives and markets itself has become increasingly pertinent as the education sector absorbs a new generation of children from diverse backgrounds.

It's only when schools are confronted with such profound change, says Prof Dympna Devine, head of UCD's school of education, that what they represent comes into focus. "When I was researching the impact of immigration on education," she says, "I asked school leaders, 'What happens when you have a substantial number of Muslim students in a predominantly Catholic environment? What does that mean for the culture and ethos of a school?'

“Those types of questions had never really been asked before because the system itself was relatively homogeneous. But the challenge of diversity now raises just as many questions for lay teachers as religious orders, who have to develop a particular policy around coping with that diversity.” Having a distinctive ethos brings a strength of coherence or integration to a school’s vision, she adds, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to a faith.

Spirit and ethos

The keynote address at last week's annual convention between the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) and the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools, was called Re-imagining the Founding Intention of a Voluntary Secondary School. The event included a workshop to evaluate whether a school is living up to its characteristic spirit or ethos.

“A founding intention that was relevant 100 years ago has to be re-imagined in the context of today; that’s just in the natural order of things,” says Ferdia Kelly, general secretary of the JMB. “The key is that schools will have to be relevant to what parents want for their children in providing an excellent education within a certain value system.”

In recent years, both the JMB and the Catholic Schools Partnership have provided schools with guidelines on working with students of other faith traditions. Kelly believes they are rising to that challenge. "Yes, the Catholic school will set out to tell a parent, 'This is what we stand for; this is what we promote in our school,' " he says. "But the whole thrust of being Catholic and faith-filled is the capacity to welcome and engage others. You have to be able to integrate them into your school community so they feel part of it."

One of the challenges in being true to a founding vision, according to Fr Tuohy, a former project director of Le Chéile Schools Trust, is resisting pressure to conform to a businesslike model that prioritises reward and status over personal growth.

“Even though there might be a drift away from denominational practice, I think there is still a cultural confidence in the type of education given with a church group that tries to integrate both the economic dimension that the State promotes and the more human dimension that a denominational approach often takes,” says Tuohy.

“If you lose touch with that vision – and this isn’t just to do with denominational schools – the default position is, ‘We’ll go through a curriculum and get points.’ That model doesn’t take the human person into account.”

As part of Fr Richard Byrne’s PhD research, he surveyed students in five case-study schools and found that, while most believed in God, weekly religious practice was extremely low. The 37 principals interviewed said parents very rarely approach them with questions or concerns about the religious upbringing of their children.

Two of the three religious principals Byrne interviewed have since retired. Clongowes Wood College, in Clane, recently advertised for its first lay principal in 200 years.

Asked how it feels to be one of the last religious principals, Byrne says he does not feel unnerved. His research may have outlined the shifting boundaries of Catholic education in State-funded schools, but he believes it will endure. “The emerging trusteeships and the national Catholic education organisations have a job to do in terms of helping principals bring forward the mission integrity of an authentic Catholic education,” he says. “But I know the quality of our teachers is very high and that in countries where the religious are no longer principals or working in education, the Catholic education has still continued.

“In that sense, I’m confident in the future.”


Religious denominations have a constitutional right to manage their own affairs, including the way they run their schools. Although the upcoming Admission to Schools Bill is intended to make admission policies more fair and transparent, denominational State-funded schools will still be able to admit a student of a particular faith ahead of others when there are more applications than places. They also have the right to discriminate positively with regard to employees to protect their ethos. But are these derogations likely to withstand challenge?

"There tends to be two basic arguments," says Dr Eoin Daly, a lecturer in NUI Galway's school of law. "One is that publicly funded schools shouldn't be able to discriminate on religious grounds. The other is that, if denominational schools did not retain those legal prerogatives, it would undermine their ethos and in turn interfere with the constitutional right of parents to have their children educated in an authentically religious environment. But there's no firm empirical truth that admitting children from different faiths actually undermines an ethos."

If freedom of religion is the basic tangible in play, Daly says, then the freedom of non-religious parents and teachers who may be put in a position of uncertainty or inferiority is just as relevant. Having to baptise your child or feign a religious belief to secure a school place, he says, amounts to an interference of choice.

“There is a significant group of people who want something different out of education,” says Fr David Tuohy, author of Denominational Education and Politics. “Finding ways of responding to that has become a big challenge for Government: to deal with the rights of these people and also the rights of patrons who have invested heavily in the system and who keep the system going at very different costs to the State.”

Prof John Coolahan, who chaired the forum on patronage and pluralism, doesn’t sense any political appetite for disrupting the status quo at a constitutional level. Instead, he believes there will be smaller-scale adjustments made over time.

“In the primary sector, I think there are changes that have to be faced up to. They’re slow in emerging but there’s no alternative. There’s a great deal of dissatisfaction by some of the international agencies, such as the UN and the Council of Europe, that we’re not doing enough to make a more pluralist system available. That’s not going to go away. If anything, it’s going to become a more serious issue in the years ahead unless more effort is made to resolve it.”