Thursday 24 January 2019

A slow decline of Catholicism in the classroom

When John Paul II arrived here, multi-­denominational ­education had barely begun. Pope ­Francis will survey a changed ­landscape, writes our education ­editor

New generation: The first non-Church controlled school opened its doors a year before Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979
New generation: The first non-Church controlled school opened its doors a year before Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

When Pope John Paul visited Ireland in 1979, the activities of a small group of parents in south Dublin involved in a primary school "project" were unlikely to have been on his radar.

Only 12 months earlier, the Dalkey School Project had opened its doors to 90 pupils. The winds of social change were stirring and these, more liberally-minded, parents did not want a Church-controlled education for their children.

When the national schools system was established in 1831, it wasn't meant to be run by the religious, but the churches moved in. They were left to it by successive governments, happy that the religious had the sites and the money to build schools. Since then, the Catholic Church has dominated, not only in terms of scale, but in its general influence.

The Dalkey School Project had a difficult gestation, with no support from the minister for education through the mid 1970s, a particularly conservative Fine Gaeler, Dick Burke. Áine Hyland, now Emeritus Professor of Education at UCC, who was one of those parents, credits the support of the new Fianna Fáil government, under Jack Lynch, for its eventual opening.

Dalkey was the foundation stone for Educate Together, a multi-denominational patron body, which has been a catalyst for change in Irish education. The history of the Catholic Church as well as in its relationship with Irish education show that change, if and when it happens at all, comes slowly.

But, when Pope Francis lands in Ireland, he will be kissing ground where sods have been turned for a different educational landscape than that which greeted Pope John Paul II.

The intervening 39 years have seen a slow and steady whittling away at tradition and mind set, and a confronting of new realities.

Ireland has witnessed a large fall off in adherence to the faith among the sons, daughters, grandchildren of those who turned out for Pope John Paul II.

Educate Together

Alongside that, the influx of immigrants since the early noughties brought a wider cultural and religious mix; new families, many of whom do not want a Catholic education for their children.

An education system where 90pc of primary schools were under Catholic Church control was at odds with these societal shifts.

Educate Together slogged away in the face of Church opposition and conservatism within political and Department of Education circles. Its current count of 82 primary schools makes it a minnow in a sector with more than 3,200. It is now also involved in nine at post-primary (either as patron or co-patron).

Pressure for reform of a church-dominated system was mounting elsewhere, including The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC).

In 2008, the first community national school under the auspices of a vocational education committee (now an education and training board) became the first State-run primary school. There are now 12.

The real political will came with Labour's Ruairi Quinn, appointed minister for education in 2011. He established the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, under the stewardship of the recently deceased Prof John Coolahan.

The forum report set out a roadmap, including proposals for the transfer of a Catholic school to another patron body, in a community where there is demand for diversity, but no choice.

It also made a series of recommendations aimed at making schools that continued under religious control - as most were likely to do - more inclusive. Proposals covered issues such as the display of religious artefacts and making it easier for non-Catholic children to opt out of religion classes.

While the Catholic Church acknowledges the principle of increased diversity in school type, only 10 changed from patronage under the forum's proposals - the forum had hoped for 50 in the initial phase. The current minister Richard Bruton has come up with a different mechanism to advance that.

Notwithstanding the forum's proposals on pluralism, the Church holds the view that Catholic schools must remain Catholic, and have been mounting rearguard actions on several fronts.

They were not pleased when Ruairi Quinn's successor, Jan O'Sullivan, acted on a recommendation to ditch a rule stipulating that "a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school".

While in place, it meant that all pupils, regardless of their faith status, were supposed to receive indirect religious education.

More recently, hostile reaction from Catholic bishops won out, when they stymied plans for the first-ever State curriculum in world religions and ethics for primary schools. While not intended to replace traditional religious education, the bishops said it would "confuse" pupils. There is a battle raging currently over opt-out from religion classes at second-level.

The weeks before the arrival of Pope Francis marked a historic legislative change, steered through by Richard Bruton, effectively removing the role of religion as a criterion for entry to primary schools. This was the so-called "baptism barrier", used by oversubscribed Catholic schools to prioritise entry for pupils baptised in their faith, even if they lived further away than the non-believer, or the Hindu next door.

In this changing landscape, some fields have been disturbed more than others.

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