'Catholic schools are as inclusive as any other type'
In my opinion... Fr Tom Deenihan
Catholic Schools Week is now being celebrated across Ireland at primary and post-primary level. It represents an opportunity for Catholic schools to showcase the good work they do in transmitting the faith and to highlight the contribution they make to society and to the common good.
This year's theme, 'Catholic Schools: Challenged to Proclaim God's Mercy', reflects the motto for this Jubilee Year of Mercy, which was inaugurated by Pope Francis.
So what has the concept of mercy to do with educating our people? In many ways, that concept of mercy is what humanises our education system and brings the person of Christ to Catholic education.
Mercy and charity are sisters. In many of our Catholic schools, students engage in charitable works for those less fortunate. In so doing, they reflect the mercy and compassion of Christ for those who are poor, alone and suffering. Such endeavours are as valuable and as character forming as any subject on the curriculum.
Mercy overlooks and forgives. Perhaps if we overlooked, forgave and did not comment on others' weaknesses, faults, failings and mistakes, particularly on social media, many pupils would be happier and safer. Therein lies a challenge for our pupils in proclaiming God's mercy.
Mercy also has implications for school management. Mercy is an attitude, a disposition, a way of relating to others. It is about giving dignity, giving respect, forgiving, treating others as God treats us. Catholic schools must live up to that expectation in how they treat others, how they deal with disadvantage and how they relate to society.
Recently, the issue of league tables has re-emerged. Such a measure of success values the schools with the academically gifted over others. Can society say that we must value all students equally, as it should and must, and at the same time become fascinated with league tables? The ideology governing Catholic schools cannot be perception, league tables or results, but mercy: a profound respect for the individual. Mercy is about the individual, not the institution, the policy, the rule, the standard or, even, the common good.
Recognising the image of God highlights the need for inclusion in our Catholic schools. Inclusion is not just about religious denomination. Inclusion must also take nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic background and ability into consideration. When these five criteria are taken into consideration, I would challenge anyone to hold that Catholic schools are not as inclusive as any others. Indeed, an ESRI publication on School Sector Variation in Ireland bears testimony to this.
St. Maries of the Isle Convent NS in Cork is a good example. It has 265 pupils from 38 countries and from 10 different faith backgrounds and atheist: 40 are Muslim, 11 are Hindu and four are Buddhist.
The school has three special Autism Spectrum Disorder classes, attended by 18 pupils . It has a further 39 children availing of resource hours. It has 11 SNAs and 25 teachers including three who teach English as an additional language. In a recent Department questionnaire to all parents, 100pc were happy with the school. A vision of mercy permeates the classrooms, the corridors, the staff room and the yard of that school. Every town has such inclusive Catholic schools.
It is also true that Catholic schools teach about the person of Jesus Christ. Experience has shown that the vast majority of parents want that religious education for their children. The recent announcement regarding Rule 68 and the teaching of religion does not impinge upon Catholic primary schools, which will continue to teach religion in accordance with their ethos and as the Minister envisions. Catholic schools have served our communities well and will continue to do so.
Fr Tom Deenihan is general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association