Nine out of 10 primary schools are under Catholic patronage


How much power does the Catholic Church wield in primary education?, asks SEÁN FLYNN,Education Editor

What is the extent of church involvement in primary schools?

Today, the Catholic Church is patron of more than 90 per cent of primary schools in the State. Of the 3,169 primary schools, 2,894 are under Catholic patronage. Most of the others are under the control of other churches.

How much power does the Catholic Church exercise in schools?

It’s considerable. Like every other patron, the local bishop appoints all principal teachers. He also nominates two of each eight-member board of management, including the chairperson. The patron must also approve all teacher appointments or dismissals made by the board. In certain circumstances, the patron can also stand down the board.

Could a patron sack a teacher if he did not approve of his/her lifestyle?

The 1982 case of Eileen Flynn – the New Ross second-level schoolteacher sacked because she became pregnant by a separated man with whom she was living – symbolised the power available to patrons. Since that infamous case, the church has been cautious about exercising these powers. It has taken no action, for example, against members of the INTO union’s lesbian, gay and bisexual primary teachers’ group, which recently held its first public conference. That said, the 1998 Employment Equality Act would allow Catholic patrons to take action against those whose lifestyle is repugnant to the ethos of a Catholic school.

What about the day-to-day involvement of the Catholic clergy in schools?

An INTO survey of teachers in 2003 gives us some clues. Some 60 per cent stated that clerical visits occurred only occasionally. There were frequent visits by clergy/church representatives in 28 per cent of all classes. Much depended on the availability of local clergy and the time of year, and visits were more frequent during preparation for the sacraments.

In the survey, some teachers felt that the clergy had “no interest in schools” and that teachers – whether practising Catholics or not – were entirely responsible for the religious and moral education of children.

How much time do schools spend on religious instruction?

A typical timetable provides for about half an hour a day of religion. But a religious ethos also influences other school activities beyond these specific times, such as assemblies or the placing of religious icons around the school building.

How does this affect minority religious groups or those with no religious beliefs?

In most parts of Ireland, especially outside Dublin, parents have little choice but to send their children to the local Catholic school. The reality in most schools is that all children must be present during religious instruction – it is not practical to withdraw them from class, especially in smaller rural schools.

What steps would be required to remove the church from primary education?

It would be a very long haul. There are complex legal issues involved, and some believe that a constitutional referendum would be required.

There are also property issues. The Catholic Church is the legal owner of school properties even though most building, upkeep and refurbishment costs have been met by the State.

Then there are the rights of school communities. A change of patronage could require a local plebiscite of the school community.

At present, the Department of Education, after discussions with the Catholic bishops in December, is examining its database on schools. It is seeking to identify those schools where Catholic control could be relinquished. There are several areas, notably in Dublin, where the Catholic Church is grossly over-represented in education. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who has encouraged the debate on Catholic control of education, has openly acknowledged this.

The department and the teaching unions all support change. While Diarmuid Martin has been pushing for change, other bishops are more protective of the status quo.

All sides of the debate are alive to concerns that the establishment of a parallel State-run primary-school system isn’t without dangers. Some fear it could create a two-tier system, with immigrants and other groups being ghetto-ised outside the Catholic system.

What do the teacher unions say about it?

The INTO’s general secretary, John Carr, says he respects the right of parents to choose a religious education for their children, but he does not believe this should automatically extend to the provision of denominational schools. The INTO supports the concept of a community national school system. Such schools, Carr says, could accommodate the provision of separate or common religious education programmes, or none, during the school day, in accordance with parental choice.