Another in the excellent series of Patrick Finn talks in St. Mary's, Haddington Road.
This time it was John Coolahan former Professor of Education in NUI Maynooth, who spoke on “The Forum on School Patronage and its outcomes”. John was the chair of the Forum and you can gen up on his background here.
He started by outlining the remarkable sytem which the British introduced in the 1830s. This was intended to deal with education in a society which was bitterly divided, primarily on religious grounds. It envisaged integrated education (including moral) for all, supplemented by separate modules for religious formation which catered for the different denominations. Technically, this system remained up to independence but in the meantime, for all practical purposes, it had become strictly denominational. After independence the denominational nature of the system was formally recognised. This was a formal recognition that the ethos of the particular denomination in question was to permeate all that school's activities including the curriculum. You can get some good background from John's book here.
So, is there a problem today with patronage and the denominational nature of the system?
In terms of human, legal and constitutional rights there has always been a problem but this was on a relatively small scale. It only began to be recognised in a serious way in 1960s and then only gradually. Individuals and groups of parents started setting up alternative schools but it was a difficult path.
Formal State attempts to deal with it started in the 1990s but lost momentum.
Problems were exacerbated by the Celtic Tiger which contributed to a school population covering a much wider range of faiths and strengthened the trend towards no religion or unbelief.
Now the State has finally got around to tackling it again in a follow-up to promises in the current Programme for Government. The Government established a Forum to consult stakeholders and advise on how to tackle the problem. Its terms of reference were essentially to come up with an approach which built on existing structures to make them, insofar as possible, compatible with the constitutional and legal rights of all stakeholders. You can find the Forum's report here.
John outlined, very briefly, how they were attempting to approach the problem via three categories of schools/situations.
- Areas where there is an expanding population have flexibility as it is likely that new schools will be built
- Existing multischool areas with stable populations will probably need divesting of some sort.
- "Stand alone" schools will have to adapt to a multifaith (and none) environment.
One element which would be present right across the system would be what is known as Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB). The purpose of this is not just to inform pupils about other belief systems but to foster a respect for adherents of such religions and beliefs
He commented that it was remarkable how the primary sector has quietly coped to date with the rapid transition to a multifaith multi-ethnic pupil body. This gives great hope for the future. It testifies to a generousity of spirit and a great degree of common sense in the sector, qualities that will be needed in buckets if the current problems are to be satisfactorily solved.
You will have gathered from reading some of the links above that John appears to be the ideal person to to get the consensus and facilitate the compromises needed on all sides. I have no experience of the primary education sector, other than having come through it in the distant past, but you could feel the respect coming from the audience, many of whom were intimately involved in the sector and are grappling with these problems.
There was a lively Q&A after the talk and an equally lively discussion in the Green Room afterwards. I didn't follow all of the remarks due to lack of familiarity with the current state of the sector.
I said that, coming from a 1950s background in primary school, I wondered if John had come across either of the following two issues as stumbling blocks in reforming the sector: (i) the sort of dogma in the Roman Catholic Church typified by the idea that "outside the church there is no salvation" and the RCC idea that it is a cut above the others, and (ii) the issue of ownership, where most of the funding for the real estate had come from the State/taxpayer but the assets were in religious ownership.
In his response it was clear that these issues had arisen, but, at the same time it was clear that, given a constructive approach and a determination to avoid confrontation, they would not prove insuperable in bona fide efforts to reorganise the sector.
A member of the audience pointed out that there was a perception out there that a Roman Catholic teacher would not be capable of imparting ERB due to the strength of their own beliefs.
John responded that this sort of thing was already happening all the time. Teachers are capable of taking a professional approach to this, including absolutely avoiding undermining any child's belief in its own (or parents) belief system(s). Teachers, of all persuasions and none, are doing this every day of the week.
Posts on previous talks: John McDade SJ, Jim Corkery SJ, John Bruton