In My Opinion: Variety of patronage is called for to meet the demands of parents
Following on the publication of data by the Department of Education and Skills on areas where the Catholic Church might consider divesting of some schools, the Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP) undertook a number of steps, including an in-depth analysis of parental understandings of school patronage.
The research clearly establishes that patronage is not the main issue in determining school choice for parents. The issues of most immediate concern are the proximity of the school, its educational standards and family connections.
The research highlights the general perception that the vast majority of Catholic primary schools are inclusive and handle the diversity of religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds in a sensitive way.
Naturally, some people raise the question whether the Catholic identity of a particular school will be diluted as it seeks to make itself open and amenable to all members of the local community. For others, this is precisely what it means to be Catholic. This inevitably leads to different emphases in enrolment policies. Catholic primary schools form an important part of the local Church community, not least through the preparation of children for admission to the sacraments of first penance, first communion and confirmation.
The research demonstrates that most Catholic parents expect the school to fulfil this function while many involved in parish life wonder if a lot of parents have not abdicated their own responsibilities.
This is particularly the case for parents who want their children to be admitted to these sacraments while they themselves are not regular participants in parish life.
The outcome of the research with regard to the role of priests in primary schools is notable.
Most parents and teachers welcome the participation of the priest and many wondered how a school could be Catholic if there were no clergy, sisters or brothers as part of it. This should not be confused with the separate question of management.
Many believe that priests should not be burdened with the role of chairperson of the board of management precisely because this would free them up for a more pastoral role.
The CSP has identified a number of outcomes from its research: a self-evaluation process for schools whereby the school community will be facilitated in thinking through its own identity and priorities; support structures for teachers and members of boards of management; the future of religious education; a re-imagining of the relationship between school, home and parish.
It is crucial that we involve the broader school community in this process as the research demonstrated that many people on the ground are suspicious that some plan might be foisted upon them by leaders in State and Church which they did not choose.
Fr Michael Drumm is executive chairperson of the Catholic Schools Partnership, an umbrella body for all the partners in Catholic schools.