Saturday 24 February 2018

'Action Man' gets belt of the crozier over schools' admission policies

The minister wants to ensure that minority faiths are not prohibited by the use religion as an admissions criterion. Stock photo: Getty
The minister wants to ensure that minority faiths are not prohibited by the use religion as an admissions criterion. Stock photo: Getty

John Walshe

'Action Man' Richard Bruton regularly gives updates on his plan to make Ireland's education and training service the best in Europe within a decade.

He predicts that the cumulative effect of "hundreds of actions and sub-actions in the 'action plan' will have a lasting and positive impact on the Irish education and training sector".

The action plan approach certainly worked in his most successful ministry - the Department of Enterprise and Jobs, where it acted as a catalyst to the remarkable recovery in employment. But there is no certainty of the same success in the much more complex and nuanced education and training environment.

Previous ministers have discovered that actions in one area often reverberate throughout the education system, setting off demands and unforeseen consequences elsewhere.

A good example is his options listed for tackling what has become known as the 'baptism barrier', shorthand for obstacles that prevent some children of different or no religion from enrolling in local Catholic schools.

The minister wants to ensure that minority faiths are not prohibited by the use religion as an admissions criterion.

Yet last week the Church of Ireland accused him of doing the very thing he is trying to avoid.

"To prevent a Church of Ireland school from prioritising children from that community will lead to a splintering and a diminishing of that link causing hurt, confusion and disillusionment.

"The rights of a minority denomination should not be trampled on in a race towards a populist understanding of pluralism," two archbishops and eight bishops said in the Church of Ireland version of a belt of the crozier.

However, something clearly has to be done about the growing numbers of children of parents who are non religious. The recent census returns took many by surprise.

An increase in the numbers reporting no religion had been expected but the figure has jumped from 269,800 in 2011 to 468,400 in 2016, which represents a growth of 73.6pc.

Nearly half (45pc) are in the 20-39 age group, the cohort most likely to have young families whose children are attending school or will be in the coming years.

Many of them feel they are not catered for adequately in a primary school system where 95pc of schools are run by the main churches.

Similarly, Mr Bruton's offer of money for the 'live transfer' of existing Church schools to multi-denominational patrons may seem practical. But it will be opposed if it involves giving money to the Catholic Church when religious congregations owe money for the redress scheme.

The minister had hoped his consultation process on schools admissions would point to a ready solution to the baptism barrier. But he is finding that the many problems in education are not as easily fixed as they are in other departments where amending a regulation or making a tax change can have immediate beneficial effects.

However, he is right to be ambitious for the sector which has come a long way since the introduction 50 years ago of free education.

It transformed Ireland and helped embed education deeper into the Irish psyche. The world is now a much different place.

Schools have to equip our young people with the skills to adapt to a post-truth, online society where Donald Trump and Brexit will dominate their futures.

Dr Anne Looney, dean of DCU's Institute of Education, remarked yesterday that teachers now have to become the "real influencers" to help their students understand and counter the culture they meet in the online world.

The changing demands on teachers were touched on in last year's action plan for education.

For it to succeed, the plan needs to buy in to the vision as well as sufficient funding to ensure implementation of what's proposed.

Whatever about the level of support for the hundreds of actions and what the minister calls "sub-actions" in the plan, money continues to be in short supply.

The big three spending departments now account for four-fifths of public expenditure. Social welfare has increased its share from 26.8pc in 2000 to 38pc; health went from 19.6pc to 26pc, but education increased from only 13.9pc to 17pc over the same period.

This year saw a reasonable rise in education spending for the first time in years and more is necessary.

However, if the teachers have their way most of whatever extra resources the system gets next year will go on pay.

All three unions will this week call for equal pay for equal work which is code for restoring the differential between younger and older teachers.

They will also want pay rises for older teachers, demands which will put even more pressure on the public purse.

There is, as the minister acknowledged, no Big Plan answer to the myriad challenges in Irish education. But that shouldn't stop us from seeking solutions.

Irish Independent

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