Why the school patronage report is doomed to fail


LEFTFIELD:A THOUGHT experiment for Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn. Imagine your child is due to start school next September. You and your partner are Catholics, and you have a choice between two scenarios.

In scenario one, you live in a State in which the primary schools are in three categories: some are dedicated to the promotion of atheism, some to Islam and some to Catholicism.

Suppose that, because of various factors, there is a 40 per cent chance of getting a place in a Catholic school. If the cards fell your way, you’d have your ideal scenario. Let’s call this the gambler’s choice and return to it later.

The recently published Report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector considers particular catchment areas where there is inadequate choice of schools.

It cites 47 areas, including the likes of Leixlip, Trim and Roscommon town, suggesting that a transfer of patronage from one of the four or five Catholic schools to a non-Catholic patron may be justified, should there be a sufficient level of demand among parents.

The report outlines how the views of parents may be collated in the form of a “register of parental preferences”, with a view to “determining the ‘ideal’ range and distribution of patronage categories”.

Let’s suppose that in Leixlip the outcome of the preference register is that 50 per cent want a Catholic school, 20 per cent want a nondenominational school and

10 per cent each support an Islamic school, a Church of Ireland school and an “other”.

Suppose that in Roscommon, on the other hand, 80 per cent want a Catholic school, with the remaining 20 per cent divided proportionately across the other categories.

Assume that the Catholic patrons in Leixlip are happy to divest one of their schools, and that an Educate Together school follows.

Non-Catholics now have the option of a school that does not promote an alien religious or nonreligious doctrine, so there is no obvious human-rights grievance.

In Roscommon, however, there would not seem to be, in the words of the report, a “very significant demand for a new type of school” (certainly not comparatively).

The Catholic patrons therefore resist any pressure to divest, while the Minister, at least on the rationale of the report, cannot impose a transfer.

Accordingly, non-Catholic parents in places like Roscommon town – along with virtually all the small villages of rural Ireland – are in the position that our friends in the gambler’s choice would be in had they actually opted to gamble, and lost.

Except, of course, such real-life parents all across Ireland never had a choice, and they never gambled. They simply lost, in the happenstance of geographical location and political clout.

In scenario two of our thought experiment, the backbone of the schooling system is “the common school”.

This does not directly promote any particular religious or nonreligious belief system, and is available in every catchment area. The State does not prohibit denominational schools, though; in fact it supports them.

Suppose that, for various reasons, the possibility of a Catholic school being available for our friends is

10 per cent: their “ideal” result is only a quarter as likely in scenario two.

Which scenario would you choose?

Would you gamble if your religious freedom were at stake?

The patronage report was always doomed, because it was set up to “respect parental preferences” and “diversity” as if the State could

ever provide the range of schools in each community needed to cater for the particular beliefs of all parents within that community.

Until the common school forms the backbone of our schooling system, ours will remain a bogus republic.

Dr Tom Hickey lectures in the school of law at the National University of Ireland, Galway. This is an abridged version of a post on the Human Rights in Ireland blog