A new system of school patronage

 

IN A thought-provoking speech this week, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, reflected on the future shape of Catholic education. His comments were timely in the context of the Ryan report which raised awkward questions for the church, and for wider society, about Catholic management of schools.

As Dr Martin acknowledges, the current virtual Catholic monopoly of school management is a “historical hangover” which does not reflect current realities. At present, some 92 per cent of primary schools are controlled by the Catholic Church; most of the remainder by the Church of Ireland. Teachers are employed by a board of management chaired by a representative of the patron, usually the local parish priest, or the local rector in the case of the Church of Ireland, but salaries are paid by government – ie the taxpayer. The patron has an input into the appointment of all teachers and, critically, he convenes the interview panel for vacancies at school principal level.

Even without the Ryan report, it is clear that the governance structures of our schools must be modernised and changed. The scathing Department of Education report on the Muslim school in north Dublin points to the need for more professional management of such schools, along with full transparency and accountability.

The national forum suggested by Dr Martin is doubly timely: Irish society is more multi-faith today than ever before – diversification that has come at a time when church control of education is perhaps questioned as never before, questioning that is quickened in the Ryan report. The forum thus needs to examine what role, if any, church authorities should have in the running of primary schools, while at the same time defending religious freedoms and seeking to respect parental choice.

There was little sense of urgency yesterday when the Taoiseach responded to this initiative. Mr Cowen told the Dáil he would consider the forum proposals, but only after seeking the advice of ministerial colleagues. The most telling comment came from Labour leader Eamon Gilmore who said Dr Martin was far ahead of the Government on the issue of school patronage.

Dr Martin is not the only public figure to seek a forum on the issue. Trade union leader John Carr, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, has been making the case for it since 2002 and it is also favoured by Brian Hayes, Fine Gael’s spokesman on education. So why the continued delay? Last year, then minister for education Mary Hanafin convened a one-day meeting of all education stakeholders on the patronage issue; since then there has been no sense that a new policy is being formulated.

There are huge issues to address in any national forum. Should parents have a right to the provision of a denominational school? Is there a danger of a two-tier system if the Catholic Church divests itself of schools in some urban areas? How should faith formation be handled in a new system of patronage? A national forum, set up without delay, would help facilitate this important debate.