John Walshe's recent article (Irish Independent, Saturday, January 7) on fee-charging schools raises some very uncomfortable questions regarding the Catholic Church's sponsorship of these schools.
Catholic education finds expression in very different kinds of institution. The Catholic tradition of teaching and learning occurs in schools that have a deserved reputation for their work with the disadvantaged and marginalised. In the 16th century, concern for the poor animated the efforts of the Brothers of the Common Life to extend educational opportunity to the poor. This concern has also inspired the work done in Ireland and internationally by the Christian Brothers, Mercy, Presentation and Holy Faith sisters and other orders from the 19th century to the present. Although in Ireland the majority of learners who are most educationally challenged tend to be found in schools run by education and training boards (ETBs), the success of Catholic schools in serving the poor is widely acknowledged in the educational literature.
Some flagship Catholic schools, however, are renowned for their exclusive character and their association with the wealthy. One of the most famous expressions of this feature of the Catholic tradition is to be found in the words of Stephen Dedalus's father in 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', perhaps the classic fictional account of a Catholic education. Having fallen on hard times, Stephen's father has had to withdraw him from Clongowes, the Jesuit boarding school. Both parents are keen to get him into Belvedere, an equally exclusive Jesuit day school. Mrs Dedalus explains that she "never liked the idea of sending him to the Christian Brothers".
Mr Dedalus then vehemently exclaims: "Christian Brothers be damned", in their school Stephen will find himself "with Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud". "No," continues Dedalus, "Let him stick to the Jesuits in God's name since he began with them. They'll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows that can get you a position." He makes no reference at all to the possible role of the school in fostering his son's religious faith.
The perception that education in certain Catholic schools in Ireland and elsewhere confers positional advantage is still current. This means that parents choose fee-charging schools to secure for their offspring social and economic advantage over others in terms of employment and access to higher education.
Like Mr Dedalus, many may not choose Catholic institutions for religious reasons at all but rather to ensure that their children become schooled in the secret scripture of the rich. For example, an article in a series on private schools deals in detail with St Stanislaus's, a school in an affluent area of Paris and has the heading 'In Stanislaus, God will recognise his own'. This is because those attending the school are being groomed as the elite of the new generation and Catholicism is viewed as part of this cachet of elitism. A feature on schools in Germany offers a similar profile of the constituency served by certain Catholic schools there.
The same applies in Ireland where some fee-charging Catholic schools are among the most exclusive in the country, although revenue from general taxation goes to support them. Defenders of Catholic education will have to be far more honest about this issue and avoid referring to Catholic schools as if they were all the same. It is no answer, indeed it is hypocritical, to argue that fee-charging schools are active in promoting social awareness on the part of their pupils if their very existence is an institutional expression of socio-economic division.
In Ireland, writers on education like to criticise the high value placed on the credential effect of educational achievement by schools, parents, and students. Most theorists, at least in public, prefer to propose pleasant and politically acceptable platitudes about the role of education in developing the whole person or in forming critical agents of social change.
Citizens in a liberal democracy, however, rightly enjoy the freedom to use their income as they see fit. If they use it to secure positional advantage for their offspring by sending them to fee-charging schools, this is a consequence of living in a free society. But these schools cannot claim to be inspired by an ethic of service to the poor.
Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, Dublin City University