Catholic schools must remain true to their foundations – status quo will not achieve this

Failure to evolve undermines both education system and mission of Catholic schools

The pragmatic option is to sit down with the Department of Education and work out a comprehensive agreement to rebalance patronage at primary level.

The pragmatic option is to sit down with the Department of Education and work out a comprehensive agreement to rebalance patronage at primary level.

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Catholic education in Ireland requires radical change if it is to remain relevant in an increasingly pluralist society. To date, the conversation has focused largely on the need to rebalance the patronage profile of our primary schools. Such a move enjoys broad support, but if Catholic schools are to remain relevant, change must go beyond simply a downsizing exercise. What change will look like and the pace at which it comes depends on the ability of those leading Catholic education to create a compelling vision for it.

Catholic schools are recognised around the world for excellence in academics, for instilling a commitment to civic engagement, for fostering leadership, and for nurturing a respect for the dignity of the person. Intentional Catholic schools embed these pursuits in their culture, and they are a trademark that has contributed to the Catholic church becoming the largest non-governmental provider of education in the world serving more than 12 million students annually.

Catholic schools are also known for serving those on the margins as Pope Francis calls us to do. Irish Catholic schools must remain true to their founding intentions and provide a quality and transformative education to those children who need it most. Catholic schools in Ireland and internationally, despite coverage to the contrary, are inclusive and diverse. A 2012 ESRI report found that there was greater socio-economic diversity among pupils in Catholic primary schools than in those under different patronage. This must remain a distinctive feature of our schools into the future.

More pluralist

At a time when Irish society is becoming ever more pluralist, the status quo is no longer tenable, and our education system must evolve. Catholic schools have nothing to fear in such an evolution. In countries with truly pluralistic education systems such as the US and the UK, Catholic schools are among the most sought after, by families of all faiths and none.

However, if Catholic education seeks to cling to its current position of numerical dominance it will undermine both the education system at large and the mission of Catholic schools. Such an approach will likely result in further forays by the Oireachtas, such as the recent School Admissions Bill, in a bid to slowly wrest perceived control away from the Church. This approach would serve nobody well, not least the children and parents that our schools are supposed to serve.

If those responsible for leading Catholic education take this path, by either default or design, public sentiment is easily predicted. Politicians will be criticised for a perceived failure to “stand up” to the Church and for an inability to deliver a fit-for-purpose education system. It will be the Catholic church that receives most of the public’s ire, labelled as power-obsessed and unwilling to accept its new position in the pecking order of a pluralist society.

A more pragmatic option is available, one that should be embraced not because of its positive PR potential, but because it is simply the right thing to do. The right thing for Irish education is also the right thing to do for the future of Catholic education in this country.

The pragmatic option is to sit down with the Department of Education and work out a comprehensive agreement to rebalance patronage at primary level. This agreement should not focus only on the number of schools to be transferred; downsizing is not a compelling strategy. It should serve as the foundation for a process to renew the schools that will remain under Catholic patronage. The strength of Catholic schools should come not from their number, but from the quality of the authentic, faith-based education children experience in them.

Compelling vision

But first, leaders of Catholic education must have a clear and compelling vision for what Catholic schools will look like in this new pluralist Ireland. This vision must move us beyond the current reality where many of our schools are, like the broader population, merely culturally Catholic. It should aspire to a new norm for Catholic schools where they are, as Margaret Spellings (former US Secretary of Education) said, unapologetically “sacred places serving a valuable civic purpose”.

Having set a vision for the future of Catholic schools we must be guided by it when negotiating with the State. Both sides must work toward a truly pluralistic education model that includes strong examples of both denominational and non-denominational schools. Such a model would truly be a system that is fit for purpose, one continuing to provide a world-class education while serving parents and their children more authentically.

In any such system the Bishops, as the patrons of our Catholic primary schools, must seek a more proactive role in fostering the culture of schools under their patronage. The reality is, contrary to reports, the patron’s scale of influence in their schools is quite limited. A case can be made for the patron having a more prominent role in, for example, induction for new teachers, the provision of professional development, and whole-school inspections. This would not diminish the quality of teaching in learning in schools, but rather enhance and reinforce the particular school culture being fostered by a patron.

An intentional Catholic school culture does not happen by accident. It requires appropriate systems and supports. Under a rebalanced system, we must become more actively involved in supporting schools to foster both faith and reason. This responsibility does not lie solely with the Bishops and must be shared by teachers, parents and parishes alike. It will require investment and time, but it is a reasonable expectation that properties handed over for State use under any agreement would unlock resources to this end.

The Bishops, in their role as patrons, hold strong cards in any impending negotiation. It is vital that they not only recognise what those are but are also willing to lay them on the table. This will call for a degree of bravery, and dare I say faith. It’s no less than our Catholic schools deserve.

Jonathan Tiernan is director of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education - Ireland initiative

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