Tuesday 27 September 2016

Time to end the Catholic monopoly on our children's schools

Ruairi Quinn

Published 06/08/2015 | 02:30

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin called a forum to help his diocese and others to divest some of their schools to other patron bodies
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin called a forum to help his diocese and others to divest some of their schools to other patron bodies

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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The church, of course, is not operating in the economic sphere but it does have a near monopoly in primary education in Ireland. In a few weeks' time, many parents will be bringing their four and five year olds to start their educational journey in the local Catholic primary school. Many will do so with pleasure and pride, but some, a growing number, will do so with a slightly heavy heart.

They are the parents who reluctantly had their children baptised as Catholics, even though neither parent are any longer Catholics themselves and do not intend to raise their children in the faith within which they may have grown up. Why so? Well the reason is fairly simple. Ninety per cent of the 3,200 primary schools in the State are under the patronage of the Catholic Church. In many cases, the church also owns the building as well. There are today three kinds of Catholics: Catholics by conviction, Catholics by culture and Catholics by compulsion. But even this delineation is beginning to be overtaken by those young parents who are refusing to solemnly proclaim that they are something which they are not.

Last year, one-third of all marriages registered in the State were civil marriages, which had no connection with any church. This trend has increased rapidly in recent years and shows no sign of slowing down. The results in the Marriage Equality Referendum are another indication of the social changes in Ireland. Some 62pc voted 'Yes' in a country where 90pc described themselves as Catholic in the last census. Next year will bring another census and it will be interesting to see what it will tell us about ourselves as a people and a modern European state.

The primary school population is currently 545,000 pupils and growing. There is real pressure on existing schools from parents who are native-born Irish, new Irish citizens or foreign nationals resident here and working in our rapidly growing economy. Indeed, for some foreign staff of international companies, school place shortages are a growing issue of concern. When they hear that Catholics get preference in enrolment they have a different view of Ireland than before. This is a growing problem with many different ramifications.

That is why, in April 2011, I set up the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism in our Primary Schools. It produced an excellent document but progress on the implementation of its recommendations is slow and I think now unsatisfactory. Following the report, surveys were conducted in 43 towns where the schools had sufficient capacity to cater for the existing and projected student population.

Typically, a town had as many as nine schools, a Church of Ireland school, a Gaolscoil and seven Catholic schools. Parents of school- going children were asked if they wanted a wider choice of school, such as an Educate Together (ET) school or a Community National school. In more than 24 towns there was a clear preference for an ET school.

The issue, then, was for the patron of the Catholic schools, normally the bishop of the diocese, to enter into discussions locally to identify a school building that could be reallocated to a new patron so as to meet the demand for diversity within the community.

While the bishop in each diocese may be the patron, he is not always the owner of the building, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin discovered when he tried to make available a school in inner city Dublin to Educate Together which was surplus to requirements. The Christian Brothers and their trust ERST had other plans and they drove a hard bargain with the Department. In another part of Ireland, an order of teaching nuns, whose single-sex school merged with the local Brothers' school and then moved into a brand new state funded building, refused to make available their now redundant school building for Educate Together, even though this was what parents wanted.

Many of these teaching orders were cited in the Redress Board revelations which have cost the taxpayer €1.5b in compensation. They have not met the 50/50 target between church and State which I put to them, as they had got a much more softer deal from Bertie Ahern and the Fianna Fáil Education Minister Micheal Woods.

Our National School system was first set up in Ireland in 1831. The original intention was to have children of different creeds educated together but it quickly broke down on segregated religious grounds.

The new Irish Free State established the Department of Education in 1924. The Department inherited what would be described today as a public/private partnership, forged during British rule. Back then and for decades afterwards, the partnership was dominated by the Catholic Church. The institutional Catholic Church still has considerable power within education by virtue of its ownership of so much of the physical infrastructure of the system.

The church was not even prepared to consider handing over the deeds of the school buildings to the State and continues to use them as Catholic schools until such time as it will decide itself. The request for the school buildings was an attempt to let the church make a significant gesture which would not cost it upfront. It declined to respond.

I have a lot of respect for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. After all, he was the first person to call for a forum to help his diocese and others to divest some of their schools to other patron bodies. His courage and foresight do not seem to be shared by others.

That is why, in my opinion, the process has been so slow.

So what's going to happen? The frustration and the anger will not go away. It is getting stronger as a new generation of Compulsory Catholics refuses to roll over. What will they do? Ireland has already been found, by the United Nation's human rights bodies, to be in breech of undertakings and treaties which we, the Irish State, signed voluntarily and the Dáil subsequently approved.

A major area of concern is the lack of secular education for primary school children and the rights of parents

There is always the European Court of Human Rights, to which Ireland is a signatory. This body, created after World War II, has nothing to do with the European Union. But it is the legal body which can affirm the rights of citizens to have an education for their children that is compatible with their beliefs.

The bishops may ignore the courts, but the people and the State cannot.

Ruairi Quinn is a former Education Minister

Irish Independent

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