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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019
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Column: Children shouldn’t be forced into Catholic schools

As the Leaving Cert results sink in, we need to change the school system to give parents real options, writes John Holohan of Educate Together.

John Holohan

As almost 58,000 students picked up their Leaving Cert results yesterday, a number of groups called for our educational system to be overhauled to combat high failure rates. But for some, the problems begin when pupils are much younger.

Here John Holohan, of multi-denominational school collective Educate Together, argues that the primary system must be reformed if Ireland is truly to join the modern world.

IF YOU PASS by a primary school, chances are it is under denominational patronage. In fact in Ireland the chances of passing a school offering multi-denominational education is only one in 50! In a total primary school population of 3,200, only 60 are multi-denominational. The Ireland of 2011 is a society where the right of personal choice is strongly advocated. This has been slow to take effect in primary education – hopefully the National Forum on Patronage and Pluralism will change this.

Ireland’s primary education system has long been the preserve of the Catholic Church. They built much of the primary school infrastructure and their mission to educate gave the vast majority of the population their formal education. The state was happy to leave them largely to their own devices, setting the curriculum and paying the teachers but not involving itself in the actual delivery of education. While the population largely defined itself as Catholic, this remained the status quo. However times have changed and the status quo is no longer acceptable to a significant portion of the state’s population – Catholic or otherwise.

When Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education & Skills, launched the Forum on Patronage & Pluralism at Primary Level with a stated desire of seeing half of Catholic national schools transfer to new patronage, he sent shockwaves through primary education. The instant reaction was that this could never happen – nothing as radical could be possible in Irish education where change is measured in inches rather than quantum leaps. One can argue about the figure but the Minister’s stated target captured everyone’s attention and put all patrons on notice that this Forum was not window dressing – real and substantive change would ensue.

Educate Together has been calling for real and substantive change for many years. Though the organisation has grown rapidly, doubling in size in the last decade, its goal of having multi-denominational education available as a choice to every Irish child is a long way from fruition. The Forum on Patronage has changed that timescale and has formalised a process that could otherwise have taken decades.

No fault – but still wrong

Providing one person with a choice does not mean that another is deprived of theirs. The great fear of many supporters of Catholic education is of a ‘rush to change’, where Catholic schools are disadvantaged. This is not and should not be the case. What does have to change is the all-too-common situation where every school in a locality is a Catholic national school and that is where you go, regardless of what you may want. Though many Catholic schools currently accommodate children who are not Catholics – it is just an accommodation. If a child is not of the faith that defines the educational ethos of a school, they cannot, by definition, be part of a fully inclusive environment. This, though not the fault of the school, is still wrong. This is why having the choice of multi-denominational education available to every local community is so important.

In Educate Together’s submission to the Forum on Patronage it suggests that a National Register of school preference should be established through local authorities. This register would collate and project local parental preference on school type. These preferences would then define the need of local school types. Where existing preferences are well-established, provision should be made through a community led patronage transformation process. A process, the mechanics of which will have been formalised by the Patronage Forum.

Yes – Educate Together is simply saying the state has to give people a choice. The state also has to show the political will to ensure any process established for transformations is robust enough to ensure the provision of choice is respected and can be effectively implemented. Educate Together’s submission to the Forum envisages an education system where schools under different patronage models exist in all communities. It is a change, but not one to be feared. The Forum presents a great opportunity to make our school infrastructure more representative of the society it is there to serve – our education system will be the better for it.

John Holohan is the head of communications at Educate Together. Further information on Educate Together and its schools is available at educatetogether.ie.

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