Protestant education worries CoI synod


GRAVE CONCERN for the future of Protestant education in the Republic following Budget cuts was expressed by a number of speakers at the the Church of Ireland General Synod, which opened in Armagh yesterday.

Bishop of Cork Most Rev Paul Colton said that in his lifetime "decades that coincide with the free secondary education era in Ireland, I can't recall an issue affecting us about which so many Irish Protestants are feeling so aggrieved with a Government [in the Republic]".

The Dean of Belfast Very Rev Dr Houston McKelvey said that what was happening Protestant education in the Republic at present "resonates" among Church members in the North". He also felt that, similarly, what was happening Protestant schools under "the lady in Education [Sinn Féin's Caitriona Ruane] in the North will resonate with church members in the Republic". Referring to "the specific targeting of Protestant secondary schools in the October budget, and the unilateral change of status - re-classification without consultation - of our schools by the Department of Education and Science", Bishop Colton said "the fact is that, unlike the majority, many Protestant children in Ireland do not have access to free secondary education". There was "anger and distrust in our community that our children have been targeted in this way", he said.

It was in recognition of the dispersed nature of the Protestant population in the Republic "that the block grant scheme and secondary education committee was put in place", he said. "That is why, from the outset of free education for everyone else in the country, our schools were seen as being in a unique category. Consequently they were treated on the same basis as schools in the free scheme rather than as fee-paying schools". He continued: "Our schools are neither fee-paying schools in the colloquial sense, nor exclusivist bastions of elitism as some education commentators are caricaturing them for the purposes of their arguments."

The best description of the status of Protestant schools in the Republic was given during the debate in the Dáil on what became the Education Act 1998, he said.

He recalled that "the then minister for education - Micheál Martin - on November 26th, 1998, referred to our schools and the block grant scheme and said: "These schools are also eligible to receive all grants payable to schools in the free education scheme . . . the issue was "a litmus of how Ireland treats and values us", he said.

Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Alan Harper told the synod that educating children separately did not inevitably mean communities would remain divided.

In his presidential address, the archbishop was responding to observations in the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past report when he made his comments on education. The Eames/Bradley report had said that "reconciliation may never be achieved if our children continue to attend separated schools".

Archbishop Harper said: "This is not an issue of undue concern in the Republic of Ireland, and the pressure in Great Britain for the expansion of schools run by churches and other faith communities does not indicate a perception on the part of the UK government that community cohesion or educational standards are threatened thereby."