School patronage system has had its day

The State should set a date for taking control of schools

The concerns raised by Paul Rowe of Educate Together (Opinion July 15th) regarding the lack of school places are real. Unnecessary stress is caused to many parents who find it difficult to enrol their children in schools. The absence of an adequate schools' infrastructure has resulted in parents being frustrated in their search for school places.

Many parents enrol in a number of schools simultaneously. This creates difficulties for school management. The demand for places has increased throughout the State but particularly in urban areas.

The outmoded concept of school patronage creates one of the biggest challenges for the future of Irish education. As Prof Tom Collins stated in an article in this paper in 2007, "the old model of school patronage, hewn out of the vigour and ambition of 19th-century Irish Catholicism and institutionalised in the apparatus of the State since independence, seems out of place. It is no longer able to meet the needs of the modern multicultural, multiethnic and secular society."

The National School system introduced in 1831 was a non-denominational one, far-seeing but soon subverted by the churches. The original objective was to “unite in one system children of different creeds”. Many schools, in the early years, were jointly managed. However, the main Christian churches put pressure on the government to allow support to be given to schools under the management of individual churches. This pressure was so effective that, by the mid-19th century, only 4 per cent of national schools were under mixed management. The vision of children of all faiths and none being educated together in primary schools dissipated.


The custom of denominational school management which emerged, in spite of the State, in pre-Independence Ireland, would become deeply ingrained in the new State.

Ideological hallmark

Subsidiarity, the practice of the State devolving delivery of services (especially health and education) to non-statutory bodies, would become an ideological hallmark of the new State. The denominational churches were well-positioned to benefit from this ideological preference.

The State has allowed subsidiarity spiral to where there are at least 14 patrons vying for the education space in Ireland. Governments have bowed to pressure groups and the "divesting" discussion rarely challenges subsidiarity. The legal challenge by Secular Schools Ireland against Cork Education and Training Board highlights the unsustainable nature of the system.

The recognition in the Constitution of the primacy of parents in the education of their children has led to a generalised notion parental choice should dictate the patronage of schools. Recently, renowned educational expert Prof Pasi Sahlberg stated “by making parental choice the cornerstone of its education system, Ireland is following a ‘lazy’, market-based strategy which is likely to produce greater inequalities and poorer learning outcomes”. Parental choice institutionalised in a model of patronage which allows any group to opt out of a State system is a basis for segregation on class, religious, ethnic or other grounds.

Subsidiarity defence

The Louise O’Keeffe case at the European Court of Human Rights adjudicated that, notwithstanding the subsidiarity defence, the State is responsible for what happens in schools. Claims by the State that responsibility lies with boards of management or the patron are no longer tenable.

The recent forum on school patronage was shy of biting the bullet on subsidiarity. Its list of recommendations, however desirable, will merely tweak a system that is outmoded and cumbersome. The recommendations do not focus on the dangers implicit in a system where the State pays almost all the costs but is restricted in its oversight, ie it has the responsibility without the authority.

The State must respond to its responsibilities as outlined by the European court. It must challenge all vested interests, set a date whereby it will take full control of the nation’s schools and dismantle the patronage system. It should recognise the contribution made by patron bodies and compensate where relevant.

As the State already pays most of the costs, regardless of the patronage, the expenditure would be relatively small. The many concerns of those who believe in the importance of equality would be alleviated. It is time the vision of 1831 was reinstated in our primary school system and that he/she who pays the piper plays the tune.

Seán Ó Díomasaigh is principal of Sacred Heart of Jesus NS, Huntstown, Dublin, and a former inspector with the Department of Education and Skills