Education system needs to reflect our diversity


OPINION:There is a huge danger of a two-tier system developing in the Irish primary school sector

THE NATIONAL forum on the structure of the Irish primary school system launched this week by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn opens a unique opportunity for a return to basic democratic principles in the education of children.

That is, equal access to all children in State-funded schools and respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as they were largely set out in the rules for national schools until 1965 (which provided for combined secular and separate religious instruction for all children, “without interference with the religious tenets of any pupil”).

This forum is a recognition that the diversity of Irish society is not fully reflected in the system and that it is time to envisage structural reforms. It is an implicit acceptance that religious discrimination is a serious issue at primary level and that it should be addressed by the State.

For this debate to lead to an Irish education system that will answer the needs of the diverse Irish society, surely the issue should be looked at first in terms of the common good of Irish society and with a view to ensuring democratic control and fundamental individual rights such as freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all Irish citizens and future citizens?

As Desmond M Clarke pointed out in Church and State in Ireland – essays in political philosophy(Cork University Press, 1985), such basic human rights do not depend on any majority or minority perspective: what is at stake is not the relative numbers of citizens holding a certain view, but whether their constitutional rights should be respected.

From this perspective, I would argue that the various private patrons are not best suited to participate in such a discussion on the future of the education system, given that they are bound to favour their sectoral interests and a relative status quo with a patronage system that gives them superior rights to those of parents and individual citizens in the 1998 Education Act. Any democratic debate should then strive to give a voice to the people.

This contribution is prompted by the Minister’s suggestion of half the State-funded primary schools in private, mostly denominational hands, the other half being presumably constituted of multidenominational community schools.

There is a huge danger of a two-tier system in which parents who can exercise choice would choose the less inclusive – or more exclusive – one. The experience of many countries with such a primary school sector supports such a view.

Overall, such a “solution” would serve to reinforce religious and, most likely, social segregation.

Ruairí Quinn has said he is a republican with a profound respect for diversity; what better chance to implement such principles than by ensuring the fundamental rights of all individuals are equally respected in all State-funded schools and that diversity is reflected in each school as it is in society?