Breda O’Brien: Divestment of schools requires more to be built

Despite media messages, Catholic parishes are mainly benign presences in schools

Expecting people to plump for a different model of school in the absence of any certainty shows a scary lack of insight by the Department of Education. Photograph: Christian Hartmann

Expecting people to plump for a different model of school in the absence of any certainty shows a scary lack of insight by the Department of Education. Photograph: Christian Hartmann

 

The row about divestment of Catholic schools in the Portmarnock, Malahide and Kinsealy area is not about a battle between church and State, or resistance to diversity.

It is not even about statements made by some schools regarding what might happen if Catholic schools in the area are divested.

Mind you, some of the apparently wilder statements had a factual basis. Take the comment about grandparents no longer being able to come into the school. There is a lovely tradition in Catholic primary schools of inviting grandparents in during Catholic Schools’ Week to talk about how they practised their faith when they themselves were young.

Of course, you could continue to invite in grandparents if a school were divested but not as a witness to the Catholic tradition in the hope of passing it on. But saying that people could not say Dia dhuit is just silly.

And no, Christmas would not be cancelled but you could not have a Christmas carol service with prayers and the nativity account read from St Luke’s Gospel. Paul Rowe of Educate Together clarified that if you did have reference to Christmas in their schools it would be in the context of other faith festivals such as Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice, an entirely different approach.

Everyone agrees that there should be diversity in educational choices. But no bishop can issue a diktat to a local school demanding that it divest. Nor should he have that authority. The parishes belong to the local community.

No bishop can issue a diktat to a local school demanding that it divest

The real obstacles are the lack of planning for school provision and the genuine fondness for local schools. One parent interviewed on Newstalk Breakfast said that he was “a bit of an atheist” but still wanted his grandchildren to experience a Catholic ethos. Others declared firm allegiance to their Christian faith.

The reality is that if half of the Catholic schools in the area divested in the morning, the remaining schools could not cater for the displaced Catholic pupils.

Population growth

There has been enormous population growth in north Dublin in recent decades. This State cannot even accommodate families in homes. Why are we surprised that it cannot accommodate children in schools?

Just as the solution to homelessness is to build more homes, the solution to this problem in urban areas is to build more schools. (Rural areas are different. And if you think this row is bad, try divesting a rural school.)

Paul Rowe says that the unpublished Education and Training Board (ETB) survey suggests that 25 per cent of parents want an alternative to Catholic education.

The initial response to the ETB survey was low. It was also conducted via pre-schools, excluding anyone using a childminder or working at home.

Some parents complained that even if they had a pre-school child, they still were not consulted.

But even the figure of 25 per cent is accurate, to facilitate change other parents would have to either leave a school with which they are perfectly happy or accept a model of education that they did not choose. This also applies to principals and teachers.

In deprived areas, parishes or religious orders sometimes shoulder the crippling insurance costs schools cannot afford

Despite the impression given by the media, Catholic parishes are mostly benign presences in schools. I know of instances where the parish funded a boundary wall or even provided a float until the State grants came through.

In deprived areas, parishes or religious orders sometimes shoulder the crippling insurance costs the schools cannot afford. Generally, Catholic parishes also let the principals and teachers get on with the excellent work that they do.

Deep faith

In addition, a significant number of principals and teachers have a deep faith commitment.

Parents feel equally strongly. I spoke to one parent who wanted to stress that it is not that Catholic parents denigrate or reject other models of schools. Far from it.

She felt that the majority believe that school choice should be left to parents and once it is made that it should be respected, including the choice of a Catholic school. Given over-subscription of local schools, she thought it was extraordinary that any school would be asked to divest.

Nor did parents know what school would replace a divested school. A parent who favoured an Educate Together school might discover that it would be an ETB-run community national school instead. Both are excellent schools but they are very different.

So what is to be done? In the past, the most successful divestments in Dublin have been where schools with falling numbers were being amalgamated, so it was a classic win-win situation.

For example, Holy Rosary National School in Harold’s Cross had a huge empty wing and the Gaelscoil, Scoil Mológa, was in need of a premises, so everyone was happy.

Similarly in Greenhills, when a Catholic boys’ school amalgamated with a girls’ school, one of the schools went to Educate Together.

But expecting people to plump for a different model of school in the absence of any certainty shows a scary lack of insight by the Department of Education into how parents’ and teachers’ minds work.

Canvassing parents in a much more rigorous way would be a really good start. But building enough schools would be even better.

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