Dismantling denominational education for minorities by stealth

 

RITE AND REASON:MINE IS the perspective of the second-largest of the patron bodies for national schools, and also the second-largest involved from a religious or faith base. Historically, the Church of Ireland took the role of care (in education) for members of the Church of Ireland, but also for those of others of the reformed Christian traditions.

This evolved over time to mean the admissions policy for Church of Ireland national schools was reasonably flexible, to include many who were not Church of Ireland, but with the caveat that the sponsoring body should not cease to be a majority holding in terms of overall pupil enrolment.

This was the intended underlying philosophy, with an attendant assumption that the schools would be Church of Ireland in spirit and character, with an involvement (and the active volunteerist support) of the local parish community, and with an important place for religious education and school worship.

The religious education programme was designed, however, to be broader than the narrowly confessional, and to leave proper space for the role of family and of parish in the spiritual formation of the individual child.

This broadly remains the philosophy behind Church of Ireland patronage of national schools, and it is one which seems to accord with the wishes and declared will of many parents and families throughout the country.

This being the case, I believe the Department of Education and Skills should give proper and reasonable support to the patrons of the 180 or so Church of Ireland national schools into the foreseeable future.

On a wider basis, although I cannot predict the findings of the recent census, in a country where a massive majority at the last census – I think over 90 per cent – declared themselves as having some religion, I do not accept there is any moral onus on the Government to rush into radical changes with regard to school patronage.

I believe emphatically in the principle of “a mixed economy” in the matter of education – that there is a respected place for schools of different types, but I would ask for an honest and unequivocal statement from the Department of Education and indeed from the Government as a whole that this is also their understanding of the matter.

There is no doubt but that present policies – in terms of an undifferentiating redeployment of teachers on a cross-patronage basis; in reductions in support for school transport; in the cutting of numbers of support teachers; in a very blunt threat to smaller schools – are making patrons of Church of Ireland national schools wonder how we are meant to secure a proper future for our schools.

Since becoming involved in the management of national schools 30 years ago, I have certainly never known a time when national school teachers felt so insecure and so utterly unvalued by department and Government.

We need to know whether this is as a result of the proverbial “law of unintended consequences”, in which case we need to have very serious discussions with the department on how to mitigate the effects, even in a time of severe recession.

If it is, however, a policy that represents “intended consequences”, but by subterfuge – the intentional dismantling of denominational education for minorities by attrition and strangulation – then I would like to hear some honesty in order that we can all look at the moral and legal implications for all concerned.

If the department has a particular alternative ideology with regard to national school education, we need to hear it, honestly and openly. Then we can respond or react to it.

If not, then we as patrons need to be allowed to do our work properly for the good not only of those who are our specific responsibility but, I believe, for the common good also.