Friday 30 September 2016

Church-run schools far more popular than their critics say

Published 07/08/2015 | 02:30

Ruairi Quinn
Ruairi Quinn

Ruairi Quinn, writing in this newspaper yesterday, said: "If the Catholic Church was a commercial company operating in the Irish economy, the Competition Authority would order it to divest itself of at least half of its urban schools."

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I am inclined to respond that if the State was a commercial company operating in the Irish economy, all kinds of findings would be made against it as well.

For example, is its position in our healthcare system too dominant? What about schools themselves? We hear that the Catholic Church controls far too many schools.

It is true that it is patron of 90pc of our primary schools, and that is too many. However, we should use the word "controls" advisedly here. The fact is that the great bulk of what happens in our schools is dictated by the State followed by the teachers' unions. The Catholic Church ensures that a rather watery version of Catholicism is taught in religion class and that sacramental preparation takes place during school hours. It has very little influence over the rest of the school curriculum.

Indeed, a pupil is much more likely to exit our schooling system well-versed in the doctrines of political correctness than in the tenets of Christianity.

Mr Quinn makes rather a lot of the fact that a growing number of weddings are now civil rather than religious and that 62pc of us voted for same-sex marriage.

He takes this as an indicator of shrinking demand for denominational education. Yes, it is an indicator of that, but beware of over-interpreting what these things mean.

Britain is a much more secular country than Ireland. Only about a third of Britons get married in church compared with two-thirds of Irish people, and a minority have their children baptised. Only a very small minority go to church each week.

Following Mr Quinn's logic, we would have to assume from these figures that there is very little demand for denominational education in Britain. We would be dead wrong to make such an assumption, of course, because there is plenty of demand.

In Britain, there is a great clamour among parents to get their children in to church-run schools. People often move neighbourhoods to do so, meaning the price of houses in those neighbourhoods often goes up. This is how badly they want their children to be taught in denominational schools.

The media here like to give plenty of publicity to parents who have to get their children baptised in order to assure them of a place in their local Catholic school. This is indeed a bad state of affairs, and it is why the church must divest itself of more schools.

In Britain, parents are not forced to have their children baptised to get them into a church school because there are plenty of choices there compared with here. But they do so anyway because they are so anxious to see their children win a place in a faith school.

What this demonstrates is that just because a country is very secular, it does not follow that the vast majority of people will want a secular education (however we might define that) for their children.

The reason so many British people opt for church-run schools does not arise so much from their faith in the churches as from their lack of faith in the State, and specifically in state-run schools.

There is probably also a certain residual regard for what Christianity stands for. They probably think a little exposure to a watered-down, mostly unchallenging version of the Christian moral code will do their children some good.

In all, about a third of state-funded primary schools in England are church-run, mostly by the Church of England.

Take careful note of the fact that they are state-funded. Some people here maintain that there is something totally outlandish about the fact that the Irish State funds denominational schools.

The truth is that state-funded denominational education is more the norm than not in the western world. If this was electorally unpopular it would not persist. The popularity of church-run schools in places like Britain and the Netherlands (where 60pc of primary schools are church-run and state-funded) is what protects them.

Mr Quinn made brief mention in his article of a survey conducted by the Department of Education while he was Education Minister of parents in 43 parts of the country.

They were asked what kind of school they wanted for their children. He correctly points out that some demand for an alternative to the local Catholic school was found in some areas, but he ought to have gone into more detail in his article.

There are about 200 schools in the 43 areas. On average, only about 8pc of parents surveyed want an alternative to a Catholic school. On the basis of this, it was decided that about two dozen of the 200 schools in those 43 areas should change hands - a little over 10pc, in other words.

Mr Quinn is right that the divesting of the nominated schools is happening very slowly. The church is getting all the blame for this. It should attract some of the blame, no doubt, though in the case of most of the bishops, the slowness of divesting probably arises more from inertia than anything else.

If I were a bishop I would be eager to rid myself of a few schools so as to make the concept of parental choice meaningful and the remaining schools more truly Catholic.

But Archbishop Diarmuid Martin pointed to another reason why divesting is happening so slowly - local resistance.

A media worth its salt would look into this properly instead of eagerly hunting down and giving the microphone to parents who do not want to have their children baptised for the sake of enrolling them in the local Catholic school.

Our media ought to find out where there is local opposition and give proper coverage to the parents, and politicians, behind the opposition. Purely in journalistic terms, that would be a good story, but in Ireland all too often ideology trumps good reportage.

Mr Quinn is right to express frustration at the slowness of the divestment process, but he should acknowledge that there are various factors behind it, not simply ecclesiastical intransigence or inertia.

He should also acknowledge that church-run schools are far more popular here and elsewhere than we are often led to believe.

Irish Independent

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