Schools plan will end in formalised apartheid


The Minister’s approach to primary school patronage is inimical to the idea of a republic, and will be disastrous

DON’T LAUGH, but suppose for a moment we were actually in the business of building a new republic from scratch. What’s the first thing you’d put down on the “to do” list?

Is it not this rather obvious idea: educate all your children together. A republic starts with the basic idea that citizens of all faiths and none share a common public life and civic values.

It’s hardly radical to think that these things should be learned from the moment children enter into a formal relationship with the public world – in the primary school system. Or that the most powerful way in which they learn them is by actually being together.

This is why Ruairí Quinn’s approach to the question of the patronage of primary schools is so disastrous. At one level, he deserves credit for at least acknowledging a problem that has been ignored by pusillanimous politicians for decades.

The cowardice of his predecessors has left us with a huge mismatch between, on the one hand, a population whose religious and spiritual beliefs are increasingly diverse and, on the other, a primary school system that has remained remarkably static, with 90 per cent of schools still under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

We now have nearly 15,000 primary school-age children who are atheists, agnostics or have no religion; 8,300 Muslim children in the same age group and thousands more who belong to religions that had a minimal presence in Ireland even a decade ago – Orthodox, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Apostolic Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, pantheists and Baha’i.

Because many of these faith groups are younger than the general population, the likelihood is that we will, over the next decade, have about 30,000 primary school children who are not members of the traditionally recognised churches. And this does not include those who are members of the latter but whose parents would prefer them to be educated in schools outside of church control.

It is depressing to live in a country where the mere recognition of such an obvious reality constitutes political courage, but at least Ruairí Quinn has not continued the disgraceful tradition of denial.

If we had an infinite amount of money, we could, in theory, build and staff more and more schools to cater for this diversity in a largely unchanged system. But we already have a very high number of primary schools per head of population and, of course, we don’t have money to throw at the problem.

Instead, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves a basic question: what kind of primary education system is best for a diverse 21st-century republic? But this isn’t just a question about education – schools are at the heart of their communities and the way we think about them is part of the way we think about democracy.

Ruairí Quinn, though, seems not to be thinking about democracy at all. His strategy has two parts. The first consists of doing nothing much for 1,700 schools that are the only ones in their area.

If you live in a rural area with just one primary school – tough. There will be nice talk about respect and diversity but the bottom line is that children from non-Catholic families will still have to attend schools where the Catholic ethos is pervasive and where all teachers must at least pretend to be practising Catholics.

All members of the boards of management will still be required by the deeds of trust to “manage the school in accordance with the doctrines, practices and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church” and to “make and keep themselves familiar with the ethos of the Roman Catholic Church” – active and explicit discrimination against non-Catholic parents who will still be in effect debarred from serving on boards of management. Ruairí Quinn has made it plain that for these schools “transfer of patronage is not an option”.

The assumption, apparently, is that rural parents are all happy with the existing regime. But a survey by the conservative Iona Institute found “very little difference” between rural and urban parents in this regard, with a slight majority favouring schools that teach either all religions or none over “a Catholic school”.

The second part of Ruairí Quinn’s strategy is for town folk, who are deemed fit to make a choice: surveys of parents of school-age children to determine whether they would like their schools to be denominational, interdenominational or multidenominational.

This is very timid: as the advisory group on patronage put it, if the process “resulted in one school being transferred [from church control] in each of the areas selected, this would amount to less than 50 schools, out of a total of 3,169 primary schools”.

But the long-term result of the strategy would, in any case, be a formalised apartheid, with children roughly sorted into different faith groups.

Everything about this strategy is inimical to the idea of a republic. It discriminates openly between people in rural and urban areas and envisages a future in which children are segregated from the age of four. Are these really the lessons we have learned from conflict and collapse?

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