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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C

Here is how Ireland's bishops responded to being asked to hand over their schools

Then education minister Ruairí Quinn had high hopes when he wrote to bishops around the country back in 2013.

AS 96% OF Irish primary schools are religious-run, enrolment policies are coming under more and more scrutiny each September. In this three-day special series, explores the role religion plays in our classrooms and what’s being done in the sector.’

Back in 2013 Catholic-run schools around the country were asked to think about the issue of religion in schools.

A new study of parental preferences had been carried out, they were told, and something had to change.

Would they as the patrons be able to hand over property to help the process? Or – at the more extreme end – be willing to change the patronage of schools out of their hands?

A short time later a letter arrived at the department.

“The Catholic church is very fortunate that so many teachers are willing to do its work in passing on the faith and preparing children for the sacraments,” it read.

“However, nationally, I see a rising generation of young teachers who may have a very different attitude to religion and the teaching of it.

The Catholic church in Ireland is very foolish if it thinks that retaining patronage of the schools solves all the problems. What’s the point of a ‘Catholic school’ if the staff are not committed Catholics?

That letter was not penned by a disgruntled atheist who had seen their child pushed out by the school system, but the chairperson of the board of management of Galway-based St Benin’s National School.

This was one response to letters the Department of Education wrote to 18 dioceses around the country.

It had asked the patrons of around 250 schools to think about what could be done, with the aim of divesting around 50 (ie changing the patronage or create a new non-denominational school in the area).

info - 3 The letters sent out by then minister Ruairí Quinn

Under Freedom of Information legislation, has seen the responses that came back to these requests.

They highlight how the process – envisioned by then-Education Minister Ruairí Quinn – has been far from simple.

‘The real headlines figure’ 

“Communities don’t like change, teachers don’t like change, they’re not the only ones. I do feel though that we can’t just go on talking,” said Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on RTÉ radio last year.

His words echo a trend in the conversation when it comes to divestment: an openness to the idea at the highest level, but firm opposition locally.

Responding to the report on parental preferences the Catholic Schools Partnership – a membership organisation for Ireland’s Catholic schools – rebuked key elements of the department’s findings.

This response laid the cornerstone for much of the local opposition around the country.

The department’s survey looked at five pilot areas: Arklow, Castlebar, Tramore, Trim and Whitehall. Parents in the relevant areas were contacted at random and presented with the ethos of the various schools, and asked about the choice of patronage in their areas.

Across the five areas between 37% and 50% of parents who were asked expressed support for a wider range of patronage in their area – while between 25% and 30% said they would avail of a wider choice of patronage were it available.

Rejecting the findings, the Catholic Schools Partnership said that they were “not based on a representative sample” and should be considered “a consultation with parents”.

info - 1 The letter sent to the Department by the Catholic Schools Partnership

The actual number of people who would avail of multi-denominational education, it reckoned, actually fell somewhere between 4.5% and 6.1%.

The organisation declared this to be the “real headline figure”.

‘Resounding affirmation of denominational education’

These figures put forward by the Catholic Schools Partnership came up again and again in the responses of bishops around the country. 

In his response, Bishop of Kerry Ray Browne noted that his diocese “concurred with the analysis of Fr. Michael Drumm and the Catholic Schools Partnership” and that said the perceived low turnout was “unfortunate”.

While it is invidious to extrapolate what the views of those who did not respond to the survey might be, it would seem fair to suggest that they do not see the need for change at this point or otherwise they would have engaged.

Also dismissing the department’s findings and backing the analysis of the Catholic Schools Partnership were Bishop of Cork and Ross John Buckley, Bishop of Cloyne William Crean, and Bishop of Killaloe Kevin O’Reilly representing the Shannon Nenagh and Birr catchment areas.

In his response to a request to look at schools in the Passage West and Carrigaline area, Bishop John Buckley said he had consulted with the local schools and that:

All schools are wholeheartedly committed to protecting and defending the rich heritage of Catholic schooling in the areas with its unique and identifiable characteristics and to ensure its continuation.

17/5/2016 White Ribbon Processions Against Crime Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin

Bishop Browne sums up a feeling present in parishes across Ireland:

In general terms, we saw it as a resounding affirmation of parental desire for denominational education.

‘Advancing the project to the satisfaction of all parties’  

It should be noted that while reluctant to fully accept the department’s findings, the religious authorities did engage with the process.

Every bishop asked put the proposal to the school boards they had oversight for – and a number even made suggestions about possible properties.

In a detailed response dated 12 August 2013, Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary said that he had written to the boards of the schools in Castlebar (the area the department had asked him to focus on), and that they had “taken the letter very seriously”.

The issue, Neary said, was that Castlebar contained “four very large schools including a Gaelscoil”, all of which were under Catholic patronage and which would not be easily divested.

info - 2 Letter from the Archbishop of Tuam

He went on to suggest the former army barracks in the town that had previously been used a temporary accommodation for St Patrick’s National School.

I am looking forward to working with you and your officials to advance the project to the satisfaction of all parties.

Writing in October of 2013, Bishop of Meath Michael Smith suggested possible accommodation for schools with different patronage in Kells and Trim.

Even in the responses that were less amenable to the process, there were still suggestions for areas where multi- or non-denominational schools could be opened.

In his response Bishop Browne suggested one former school property that could be used by an alternative patron, and another “very small school” that felt a change of patronage could help its long-term future.

In total, the department sent out 18 letters asking for a change of patronage in 23 areas.

In response, bishops around the country suggested a handful of properties that could be used for divestment, with one firm plan for the opening of an Educate Together school in New Ross and two suggested transfers of patronage (one of which was for a Church of Ireland school).

Making the change 

What can be seen is a process that, although at times is characterised by its pedestrian pace, is ongoing.

In the past three years, eight schools have opened under divestment, and Educate Together – the body that has taken on the patronage of the bulk of these – has pointed to 16 areas where it hopes divested schools will be opened in the near future.

Two more Educate Together schools located in property given up by the Catholic church will take in their first group of junior infants this September.

And, in the schedule of the documents from the past three years refused by the Department under Freedom of Information, steady communication between the government and dioceses around the country has been frequent.

Asking an established school to change its patronage isn’t an easy proposition – and it isn’t surprising that an overwhelming majority haven’t decided to go down this path.

Despite this, there are some home truths that both the department and patrons around the country will have to come to grips with.

In the 20 years between 1991 and 2011 the total percentage of Catholics in Ireland decreased steadily, dropping from 92% down to 84%.

With the results of the next census due out next year, it us up to the Department of Education, the school boards and Ireland’s dioceses to decide how to deal with a changing society.

In the words of the chairperson of St Benin’s National School in Galway:

“Personally I believe that the vast majority of parents are indifferent about school patronage as long as the schools that their children attend are well managed and efficient. If a school has a good principal, dedicated teachers and a competent [Board of Management] parents are happy.”

Patronage is a political matter and is really a matter for national debate. Why should the present cohort of parents determine the future patronage of our schools?


Read: Religious education in schools: Two sets of rights in conflict

Also: Ireland’s push for education equality: 8 schools opened in 3 years

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