Saturday 25 March 2017

Today's lesson: a school is not merely a building

I was reminded of the old African proverb "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now" as I reflected on the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, recently established by Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn.

I agree that a debate on patronage/trusteeship is important, and in my view is long overdue. The rationale seems to be that there are too many Catholic schools. In order to ensure diversity of values, beliefs, language and traditions why not divest a percentage of Catholic schools to other more inclusive, more pluralistic, more caring educational bodies?

If this is the assumption on which the forum is based then it needs to be challenged. Catholic schools already serve diverse student populations in inner city areas and throughout the country.

In 2008, the Edmund Rice Schools Trust (ERST) was established as a company and a registered charity. This lay trust was given responsibility for the 97 primary and post-primary schools in the Republic formerly under the trusteeship of the Christian Brothers.

The ERST Charter is the statement of the core values or the characteristic spirit of our schools, the five key elements of which are nurturing faith, promoting partnership, excellence in teaching and learning, a caring school community and inspiring transformational leadership.

In April 2011, the Catholic Schools Partnership stated that, "If sufficient demand for a school under different patronage can be demonstrated then all of the stakeholders should work in partnership towards this goal."

If there is to be change of a patron/trustee this must be voluntary, planned locally and based on respect for the rights of parents, and all other stakeholders, including local communities.

Clearly, both our charter and the Catholic Schools Partnership statement show that we are not just open to change, we actively embrace it. Indeed, we are willing to assume patronage of additional schools in order to further the principles of pluralism and inclusiveness. It is clear from statistics that there is some over-representation in terms of patronage.

We recognise the need for communities to have their values expressed through the education provided for their children. What we are cautious about is any assumption brought to the Forum that removing one set of values and replacing them with another is always progressive.

The 97 ERST schools are part of a network and embrace the values of pluralism, multiculturalism, inclusion and diversity as set out in the charter.

They are part of a long tradition of serving their local communities. And, they are more than that. A school is not just a building. It is the culmination of the hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows, hard work and teamwork of that school community.

Our task is nothing less than to enable children and young adults to live to the best of their ability in dignity, with hope and with a sense of belonging.

That is why we are cautious. Centuries of tradition are folded into our education system's fabric. Insight, wisdom and hope are dyed into its threads.

Of course it must evolve. Clearly it must reflect the society it serves.

But we need to start with a crystal-sharp understanding of what that society really wants and needs.

Irish Independent

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