Bishops pin school hopes on parents

John Walshe Education Editor

THE Catholic Church will retain its key role in schools -- but only as long as parents want it to, senior bishops will announce today.

In an unprecedented move, the Church hierarchy will issue a pastoral letter -- seen by the Irish Independent -- which spells out its future role in Catholic schools for the 'new' Ireland, both north and south.

And they will invite the public to take part in discussions on the best way for Catholic schools to develop into the future.

The document, entitled 'Vision 08', is the result of a three-year consultation period facilitated by the bishops and the Conference of Religious of Ireland.

Sources last night said the letter is based on the belief that the Church will remain in education, but only as long as parents want them to.

The Catholic Church currently controls 90pc of the country's 3,200 primary schools and more than 400 voluntary secondary schools.

Several bishops have gone on record as saying the number of primary schools under church patronage is too large and needs to be reduced.

But even if the number drops by 10pc or 20pc, the Catholic Church will still be a major player in education in the future, provided parents continue to support it.

If the public reaction to the bishops' letter is negative, it will force a major rethink by the Church of its place in the future of Irish education.

But if it receives significant support it will act as a guide for future changes in Catholic schools.

The letter says:

- Bishops are "acutely conscious" of the shortcomings of some of the Church's educational institutions in the past;

- Predicts more religious run secondary schools will be handed over to trusts composed mostly of lay people;

- Catholic schools, while remaining true to their distinctive ethos, will welcome pupils of all denominations;

- A national Catholic Education Service for the whole of Ireland is to be set up.

The letter rejects a view of education where there is over-emphasis on competition, a narrow preoccupation with examinations and specialisation at too early an age.

"In current circumstances Catholic schools continue to meet the challenge of seeking educational excellence, while resisting the pressures of merely pragmatic, utilitarian approaches which tend to subordinate the good of the person to lesser ends," it states.

Turning to secondary schools, it says the time is now ripe for a transition to new forms of trusteeship.

The number of priests and religious involved in educational leadership, and in education as a whole continues, to decline.

"Many religious congregations are now engaged, in some instances, through collaboration with other congregations, in the process of exploring, planning and setting up new forms of trusteeship," the letter continues.

"By this means, some or all of the responsibility for the schools they formerly administered will be transferred to trusts made up wholly or partly of lay people."

Although it does not directly refer to physical or sexual abuse, tthe document says the Church is "acutely conscious of the shortcomings of some of our educational institutions in the past".

But it adds: "That should not make us forget those parents and dedicated educators who for generations worked under the most difficult conditions with very few resources and often with little assistance from public funds."

The pastoral letter plus a shortened version will be available on the homepage of the bishops' conference website this morning.

The public can email responses to