Catholic 'control' of schools exaggerated


OPINION:THE LAUNCH of Catholic Schools Week 2010 takes place today – in the week of the publication of the latest Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll. This survey makes startling reading for all associated with Catholic schools. The finding that a majority of people believes that the Catholic Church should give up its control of the primary school system calls for serious in-depth consideration as we reflect on the role of Catholic schools in society and in the life of the church, writes LEO O'REILLY

The use of the phrase “control of the primary school system” in the Irish Times survey is emotive and misleading. It is emotive because it elicits a sceptical reaction from the respondent, as nobody wishes to be controlled. It is misleading because it ignores the presence of other patrons and suggests that the Catholic Church has a level of control not granted to other patrons/trustees or owners of schools. This is simply not the case. All patrons enjoy the same level of control as Catholic patrons do, and it should be pointed out that this control is quite limited.

All primary schools are managed in a spirit of partnership by boards of management. Catholic patrons like other patrons nominate two of the eight members on each board. Boards of management are obliged to see to it that schools are run in accordance with the Education Act, 1998, the Constitution and rules of boards of management laid down by the Department of Education and Science, and other relevant legislation and circulars from the department.

It is clear from this that the control exercised by patrons, whether Catholic or otherwise, is a very limited form of control.

Ruairí Quinn of the Labour Party, in an opinion piece on Tuesday, refers to my comments on the Catholic Church’s approach to pluralism in education as a welcome development. He notes that negotiations between the Department of Education and Science and representatives of Catholic Church patrons have begun “to ensure that parents should have a choice, as far as possible, about what kind of school their children will attend”.

I welcome this acknowledgment of the importance of parental choice. It is surely the central issue at stake, not whether the church or the State should have control of primary schools, as was pointed out by the Iona Institute in its response to the Irish Times survey.

Coming in the wake of the Murphy report, the results of the poll are of course disturbing and are another confirmation of the devastating effects of child abuse by clergy.

However, it is surprising to note that another finding of the poll is that a majority of voters (those aged 18-24 and the over-50s) believe that the church will change to prevent child abuse by clergy from happening in the future. This is a challenge which we face and an opportunity to secure a better future.

It is in this context that Catholic Schools Week gives us the fresh opportunity to acknowledge the contribution that Catholic primary and post-primary schools make to Irish society by inviting young people to model their lives on the values of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels.

Last year marked a very successful beginning of an all-Ireland celebration of Catholic Schools Week and we hope this year to build on that foundation and continue to create a space where we can articulate the ethos and identity of Catholic schools.

The launch of Catholic Schools Week this year is also the occasion for a very significant new development. The need for a body to provide coherence in Catholic education in Ireland has long been acknowledged. The Bishops’ Conference and Conference of Religious of Ireland have been working together to achieve this goal and have established the Catholic Schools Partnership to meet this need.

After many years of internal preparation we have arrived at a new dawn for Catholic education. Today Cardinal Seán Brady will inaugurate the partnership in the Emmaus Centre, Swords. The central goals of the partnership are:

(a) To provide a unified voice for Catholic education in the public forum and with educational bodies and the Government.

(b) To support Catholic educators in the core activities of learning and teaching in order to foster high-quality life-long learning and faith development for all learners.

(c) To support the roles of governance, trusteeship and management.

The official inauguration of the Catholic Schools Partnership marks the completion of a cherished goal of both conferences, the establishment of an association that will act as an effective advocate for Catholic education into the future.

Leo O’Reilly is Roman Catholic Bishop of Kilmore and is chairman of the bishops’ education commission and a member of the bishops’ strategic task group for education

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