Secular education for all would deny right to parental choice

It is important that parents have a right to choose schools that reflect their own values, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

It is important that parents have a right to choose schools that reflect their own values, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

INCREASING THE diversity in school patronage is a good thing. The Catholic Church is patron of 92 per cent of primary schools, and since that no longer reflects Irish society, it should change. However, the Irish Times poll, where some 61 per cent said it was time for the Catholic Church to give up control of the primary school system, raises as many questions as it answers.

John Bruton once famously said that he had not been asked the right question. It is very interesting to see responses to differently framed questions about primary schools. A poll for the Iona Institute, of which I am a patron, and rigorous research by the Council for Research and Development of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, independently found that about 50 per cent of parents actively want denominational education for their children.

When the Council for Research and Development (see Factors Influencing School Choice at asked whether the churches should continue to have a prominent role in the provision of primary education, 62 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed, almost exactly the percentage which, according to the Irish Times poll, are rejecting church control.


Significantly, the Council for Research and Development surveyed parents with school-going children, rather than the general population. Some 83 per cent of parents surveyed strongly disagreed that the school being Catholic made it a less safe environment for their child. An astonishing 95.1 per cent of parents were very satisfied or satisfied with their Catholic school. Any political party or trade union receiving satisfaction ratings like that would be ecstatic.

That is not to say that parents necessarily chose the school they did mainly because it is Catholic – other factors such as that the school would meet a child’s needs and abilities, and the perception that it would nourish imagination, and have a good discipline system, were all more important.

Something complex is going on. There is a phenomenon called “vicarious religion” by sociologist Grace Davie – the notion of religion adhered to by an active minority, but with a much larger number (implicitly at least) clearly approving of it.

Nordic countries are considered to be the most secular in the world. But they happily pay taxes to support the state religion. Prof Davie calls it “belonging without believing”. When the Baltic ferry Estonia sank with 852 deaths, the deeply secular Swedish people instinctively gathered in churches, waiting for the Church of Sweden to articulate for them a common grief and meaning. This has happened there at times of disaster since then.

Ireland is far less secular, but even parents who are less than committed know the success of Catholic educators is linked to Catholic values, especially the belief that children are unique and deserve care because they are loved by God. Not all parents share that belief, but many are happy to share the fruits.

The majority of parents like the Catholic values they see in the schools – respect for every human life, a concern for justice and equality and fairness. They recognise that these values are counter-cultural, a challenge to consumerist individualism.

The myth of Catholic schools as places that indoctrinate and control needs to be nailed because it is unfair and unjust. It is being perpetuated by people who are completely out of touch with the broad, liberal education being offered by Catholic schools.

It is one thing to be angry at the church for its failures as documented by the Ryan and Murphy reports. It is another to damn the volunteers who give hours without recompense to schools. It is very unfair to blacken hard-working teachers and principals, or the often elderly men who take on the task of unsalaried managers, that is, parish priests.

When parents are given a choice about school ethos, the results can be surprising. In 2002, the Irish Jesuit Provincial, Fr John Dardis SJ, wrote to the five Jesuit secondary schools.

The Jesuits were facing many different challenges. Vocations were down from the high numbers who joined in the 1950s and 1960s. Withdrawing from their schools and concentrating their energies elsewhere was a very real possibility. Staying in the Jesuit network would mean the school community themselves would have to take ownership of the values involved.

The parents’ response was an overwhelming “Yes” to Jesuit involvement, and an affirmation of values the schools stand for.

While some want to demolish Catholic education, there are those, like Ruairí Quinn, who don’t want to end our system of school patronage, but to provide real choice. Admittedly, choice is easier to provide in Dublin.

What do you do if in a small rural school, 20 per cent want secular schooling, 20 per cent want multi-denominational, and 60 per cent believe the current Catholic ethos works fine?

There are those who think secular schooling for all will solve the issue. But a secular worldview is not a neutral space, and denies the right to parental choice.

It is important that parents have a right to choose schools that reflect their own values, but does that mean dismantling everything that is valuable in Catholic and other faith schools? Catholic schools are highly valued here and abroad, and receive state funding in many countries.

As we enter a time of change, let’s not throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater.