If 'inclusive' faith schools aren't broken, Ruairi, don't keep on trying to fix them
It is widely accepted that Ruairi Quinn is a well read and intelligent man. He and I have appeared together a few times on radio and television invariably pitted against one another. But I've always liked and respected him. Unlike certain Fine Gael politicians we could mention, he doesn't blow with every passing puff of wind.
However, the other day he delivered a very ill-thought-out speech at the INTO annual conference. I'm not talking about the bits that got him into trouble with the delegates. No, I'm thinking about what he said regarding Catholic schools and 'inclusivity'.
He kicked off this section of his talk by quoting the American poet and PC goddess, Maya Angelou. The quote was: "Growing up, I decided ... I wouldn't accept any man-made differences between human beings, differences made at somebody else's insistence or someone else's whim or convenience."
Quinn said: "That quote represents the idea which our reforms are intended to underpin."
However, what Angelou says only makes sense when you don't think about it for more than a second or two. But when you think about it for longer than that you realise it's ridiculous. So many of our differences are man-made and if you were to abolish the lot of them I'm not even sure we'd be recognisably human anymore.
Politics is man-made. Religion is either totally or partly man-made, depending on your point of view. The different nationalities are largely man-made. Supranational bodies like the EU or the UN are man-made. Even all the different sports teams we support are man-made.
Are all these things to be rejected? Yes, if they are used as excuses to persecute those who don't belong to your particular club. Not otherwise. To do otherwise would be the opposite of 'celebrating diversity', it would crush diversity and destroy freedom of association.
So the fact that our Education Minister says that Angelou's quote "represents the idea which our reforms are intended to underpin" is actually extremely worrying if he really means it.
As an atheist, he obviously regards religious difference as man-made. This is why he finds it so hard to properly understand the point of view of people who want a full and rounded religious education and formation for their children.
Deep down Quinn probably thinks religion belongs in the home and not in school. But a religious parent knows school plays an absolutely vital role in the formation of their children and therefore they want school to help them raise their children in their religion.
Quinn would probably outright deny this is his opinion which is why he keeps on reassuring religious audiences that he respects their point of view. But then he announces that he wants the religion specific to the school to be taught at either the start or the end of the school day.
He seems to have a big problem with schools engaging in faith formation. He seems to think that when they do this they are failing to be properly inclusive.
This is almost certainly why he has asked the church to show him a school that is a model of total inclusivity.
But perhaps the church hasn't come up with such a school because they know that anything Quinn would regard as a model of 'total inclusivity' would be so 'inclusive' it would hardly have a religious identity at all.
A big part of the problem is that no one seems to know what a totally inclusive denominational school would actually look to Ruairi Quinn.
For example, what would he think of a Catholic school that says the Angelus at midday? What would he think of a Church of Ireland school that starts an assembly with a prayer?
Would he think of a Muslim school that has a crescent on its wall and no symbols of any other faiths?
Would all these things be deemed to 'exclude' certain children and therefore be forbidden in Ruairi Quinn's ideal school even when the school is specifically religious?
The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism which Quinn himself set up seems to be of exactly this view. It wants prayers to be 'inclusive' for example (is the Hail Mary 'exclusive'?), and where religious symbols appear on the walls of a school, it wants the symbols of many religions and not simply those of the school to appear as well.
Not even the European Court of Human Rights takes this extreme a view of 'inclusivity'.
A few years ago it ruled that displaying a crucifix on the walls of classrooms in state schools violated no one's rights.
In his speech, Quinn also ignored the finding of his own Chief Inspector of schools who, in his latest report, stated: "During notified WSEs (Whole School Evaluations), 96pc of schools were found to be managing their pupils effectively by, for example, fostering respectful pupil-teacher interactions, by cultivating an inclusive, child-centred ethos."
"An inclusive, child-centred ethos". In 96pc of primary schools inspected, the vast majority of which are Catholic. So our Education Minister is creating out of thin air a big problem when at most only a very small one exists.
Denominational schools are already inclusive and the only way to make them more 'inclusive' would be to stop them being denominational. Is that what Ruairi Quinn really wants despite all his protestations to the contrary?
In other words, is the campaign to make denominational schools more 'inclusive' really a campaign to obliterate them with a nice sounding word?