Are Catholic bishops ready to give up patronage of schools?
Minister Richard Bruton’s new divestment plan is carrot rather than stick approach
Ireland is saddled with a 19th-century-schools system which is out of keeping with the needs of a 21st-century society.
Almost everyone – including the churches – agrees that placing the control of 96 per cent of primary schools in the hands of religious denominations is not in anyone’s interest in an increasingly diverse society.
So what can we do to change it?
It’s been five years since plans to pave the way for the divestment of schools from religious ownership were announced in a blaze of publicity.
The report of the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism, established by former minister Ruairí Quinn, recommended that religious schools in about 28 areas divest to multidenominational patrons.
To date, progress has been achingly slow and divisive: only 10 have completed the divestment process to date.
There have been a range of obstacles, such as local resistance to change, parental fears and opposition from local clergy.
The glacial pace of progress prompted Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin last year to criticise elements of the church for “dragging their feet” over the issue.
He has said the church’s refusal to take “a proactive stance” in promoting the divestment of schools undermined the process from the outset, and has suggested cuts in school funding might be considered to concentrate minds.
Undeterred by past experience, Richard Bruton has announced ambitious plans to acculturate the divestment process with the aim of securing a goal of 400 by 2030.
These would be secured through a combination of new schools and transferring patronage of hundreds away from religious bodies.
So, why will this process succeed where the previous attempt has failed?
Mr Bruton says the new process takes on board lessons learned from Ruairí Quinn’s initiative.
His officials say “live transfers” of schools – rather than the cumbersome process of closures and amalgamations – will speed things up.
The involvement of communities and patron bodies from the outset in measuring demand for multidenominational education and selecting new patron bodies will give vested interests a greater sense of ownership, they argue.
In addition, the potential for a religious organisation to earn money by leasing their school land to the new patron body creates a financial incentive to buy into the process.
In essence, the new process is much more about a carrot than any form of stick for bishops. Religious organisations will have control over the process; all transfers will be voluntary. In addition, school landowners – typically Catholic bishops – will need to consent to any transfers.
It remains to be seen whether the Catholic hierarchy is ready for this step.
Senior figures such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin are. He has spoken of how the provision of more multidenominational schools would give parents greater choice and allow the Catholic Church to ensure it has stronger faith schools in the longer term.
One key difference with the new approach is the potential for growth of new Community National Schools, run by the Education and Training Board.
The model – developed as part of a pilot project in 2008 by the Department of Education – is more palatable to the church. Unlike Educate Together schools, this model of schooling allows for “faith nurturing” classes and sacramental preparation during the school day.
Although children are educated together in a broad-based, multifaith religion class for most of the school year, they may divide into different religious education groups for about 10 hours during the school year.
Some in the sector see community national schools as a halfway house between schools under religious patronage – which provide faith formation – and Educate Together schools, which do not.
They also are more traditional in that schoolchildren typically wear uniforms, for example, and tend to refer to teachers as “Mr” or “Miss”, unlike with more liberal approaches.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the model. Educate Together says these schools do not provide a viable alternative to denominational education in Ireland. It says the school model “sanctions the segregation of young children” by separating them for faith formation classes.
There is no mistaking that as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, community national schools are a far more palatable option than most others when it comes to divestment.
Last year, Fr Michael Drumm, then chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, which represents Catholic bishops in the education sector, gave a clear impression that it was willing do to business with this model.
He said at a conference that “patronage was adaptable”, and he would welcome alliances with other patrons.
If this new approach to patronage is successful, will it create a more diverse education system?
Even if the targets are met, the vast majority of schools will remain under denominational control.
The task of creating an education system which meets the needs of 21st century society will involve other steps, including the reform of admissions policies and the role of religion in the classroom.
If the Minister’s plans are to be realised, it will require sustained political will and a determination to ensure all children – and their parents – have meaningful choices when it comes to State-funded education.