News Comment

Sunday 31 August 2014

We need to pick up the pace to revitalise our school system

John Coolahan

Published 02/07/2014 | 02:30

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The educational rights of Irish citizens are set out in the Irish Constitution and in the Education Act of 1998.  Picture posed (Thinkstock)
The educational rights of Irish citizens are set out in the Irish Constitution and in the Education Act of 1998. Picture posed (Thinkstock)

Changing a country's school system is a complex process. Ireland's primary school system is a very unusual one by international standards. Founded as long ago as 1831 as a state-supported system, it has evolved in such a way that about 96pc of the schools are classified as being denominational, the vast majority being under Catholic patronage.

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Over recent decades, the Irish population has experienced great changes in terms of ethnicity, language use and religious belief. At least since the early nineties it has been recognised that the existing structure of primary school provision is no longer in harmony with the rights and needs of a growing minority of the population.

The educational rights of Irish citizens are set out in the Irish Constitution and in the Education Act of 1998. They are also endorsed in a range of international conventions, to which Ireland is a signatory.

As well as concern at national level about the mismatch of school provision and citizens' rights, Ireland has come under increasing criticism from international agencies such as the UN and Council of Europe on the issue.

In March 2011, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn established the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary School to conduct a consultative process on the issues involved. Its report was published in April 2012. The current document, issued by the Department of Education and Skills (DES), provides a valuable public service in providing an up-date on developments.

In his foreword, while recognising improvements which have been made, Mr Quinn asserts emphatically that more needs to be done and states: "It is important that Ireland continues to be seen as a country which upholds human rights." Following a succinct account of relevant contextual issues, the document sets out the underpinning reasons and values which impel continuing action on expanding pluralism in schooling for a diverse population.

A progress report is given on key recommendations of the forum's report on promoting pluralism in provision. A new process has been put in place regarding the approval of new schools. This system is working satisfactorily, with the advice of the New Schools Establish-ment Group (NSEG), set up in 2011.

However, progress on the divesting of patronage of some schools by existing patron bodies has proceeded much more slowly than expected. The idea of divestment was proposed by Catholic bishops in 2007 and 2008 as a possible way forward. This potential solution was endorsed by the forum, and its report set out a detailed mechanism as to how it should be processed. The DES document outlines the steps taken since, but records only a very few instances of divestment happening.

It is understandable that local communities have a sense of loyalty and identity with their local school, which may have been built up over generations. In the light of local debate, it seems that there can be a general agreement on the principle of divestment, but it should apply to another school, but not ours! There is a need for better communication and proactive advocacy and leadership by key partners such as the local patron, the teachers' union, the National Parents' Council and local politicians to help unlock local perspectives and attitudes in the interests of the common good.

A major recommendation of the forum was the need to make schools, that will continue to operate on a denominational basis, more inclusive and catering for pupils of diverse religious beliefs, and none. While paying tribute to the efforts being made by some schools in this regard, the document indicates that a more widespread response of good practice is needed. The document gives some exemplars of good practice and provides valuable advice and guidance to school communities in devising their policies on inclusion. It is good to note that preparation for the important new programme, Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB), to be shared by all pupils, is well under way.

What is afoot at present is a process of greater pluralism in the provision of schooling in Ireland. While it is a demanding social challenge, there is a legal and moral imperative on Irish society to achieve it. It would be desirable if this can be done in a positive spirit of civic engagement. This document is a landmark along the way.

It is encouraging to note that the document concludes by stating: "At national policy level, the implementation of the recommendations of the forum report will continue." It also views the process as "ongoing organic evolution which will allow sufficient flexibility to respond to changes in society".

It is a sign of a mature democracy to seek to accommodate the rights of all citizens in areas as sensitive and as significant as education. The momentum needs to be sustained.

Professor John Coolahan was chairperson of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.

Irish Independent

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