Efforts to divest schools ‘disappointing’, says forum chairman

Bishops not reading signs of the times or seeing what’s in their own best interests

Prof John Coolahan: “I would have expected more where the Christian ethos is so strong.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien.

Prof John Coolahan: “I would have expected more where the Christian ethos is so strong.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien.

 

Efforts to divest schools from religious ownership in the State have been very disappointing, especially as the process involves people of strong Christian ethos, the chair of the Forum on Patronage has said.

Prof John Coolahan, chair of the advisory group to the forum which examined pluralism in the primary sector and reported to the Government in June 2012, expressed surprise that more Catholic bishops were not publicly supportive of Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin on the issue.

Dr Martin has said the church is dragging its feet over the divestment of schools.

“Overall the situation is disappointing when it comes to divestment,” Prof Coolahan said.

“What we are facing is something quite serious. We have a 19th-century-schools system which is out of keeping with the needs of a 21st-century society.

“No one is trying to score points but society has changed enormously” and, unless schools adapted, they were headed for “great trouble”.

He said the forum had tried “to encourage a generous spirit where existing patrons were concerned when it came to agreed divestment of schools”.

At the bishops’ request, the State conducted an investigation into demand for alternative patron models in towns with five and six schools. This was established but nothing more happened, he said.

“We never thought it would be automatic but it is very disappointing that nothing happened. Local patrons and politicians stayed at a distance when they should have done more to encourage confidence,” he said.

Current attitudes

“It proves the bishops are not reading the signs of the times or seeing what’s in their own best interests.

“Catholic schools will continue to form a significant part of overall schools provision. Is it not better that this continue to have public support?” he asked. This seemed to be recognised by Archbishop Martin, he said, adding “one would love to see other bishops doing likewise”.

Muddying of waters

Ireland

The Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and ethics programme, recommended by the forum, was intended not least for children who received no religious formation at all and as preparation for living in a modern democracy, he said.

“All children will benefit from it.”

The absence of a “spirit of co-operation and goodwill” in the divestment debate also disappointed him.

Christian ethos

Meanwhile, the current patronage practice in primary schools is based on a fiction, a conference at Trinity College Dublin has been told.

“There is little basis for assuming that existing patronage is somehow a function of, or determined by, parental choice in any real sense,” Dr Eoin Daly of the school of law at NUI Galway has said.

“Presumed parental choice” was being invoked as justification for the range of schools recognised “yet there is no established formal mechanism for ascertaining parents’ actual choices”, he said.