In my opinion ...
The first comprehensive schools opened just over 50 years ago with the vision of offering all students within the community the opportunity to access a comprehensive curriculum combining academic and vocational opportunities.
From the outset, comprehensive schools embraced a spirit of creativity and innovation. The concept of a school education which provided students with the opportunity to explore a broad curriculum and to identify their own strengths was encouraged.
The Department of Education allowed the schools the autonomy to explore these kinds of possibilities resulting in the introduction of the first Centre for Curriculum Development, Research and Innovation under the aegis of the board of management of St Patrick's Comprehensive School, Shannon. Much of what was proposed then is finally taking root across schools with the introduction of the new Junior Cycle Framework.
Diversity is a key strength across Irish post-primary education provision. Within the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS), there is significant diversity as individual schools are reflective of the communities which they serve. While responsible to its patrons and the Department of Education and Skills, the board of management has a real autonomy, allowing it to meet the needs of the local community in an authentic way. This is consistent with the ACCS vision of promoting an understanding of community-led comprehensive education for all.
As Judith Gross et al note in Strong School-Community Partnerships: "School factors that facilitate these partnerships include strong school leadership, an inviting school culture, educator commitment to student success, and the ability to collaborate and communicate with community partners. Strong community partnerships support schools in the present, while the benefits to the community may continue long into the future."
At all times, community and comprehensive schools have shown a strong capacity to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of the diverse and indeed pluralist communities which they serve. With the emphasis on access for all, there is a strong tradition of promoting cross-cultural understanding and engagement. It is common across community and comprehensive schools that the single most important determinant of who attends the school is those who reside close to the school and within the community which it serves.
The recent Department circular on religious instruction and worship has initiated healthy debate. The key trait that describes a pluralist society can be summed up as 'respecting the otherness of others'. It is healthy to promote an understanding of different religions and traditions among communities while also appreciating the Christian tradition that underpins much of Irish society. In this regard, ACCS promotes their schools with religious patrons to engage with the religious education programme developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
The NCCA states that this programme highlights "the promotion of tolerance and mutual understanding" and "seeks to develop in students the skills needed to engage in meaningful dialogue with those of other, or of no, religious tradition".
While promoting the religious education programme, ACCS also respects the right conferred on any child in article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution "to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school".
This right is given expression in the Deed of Trust for Community Schools which states, "the Board shall ensure that there is religious worship and religious instruction for the pupils in the school except for such pupils whose parents make a request in writing to the principal that those pupils shall be withdrawn from religious worship or religious instruction or both religious worship and religious instruction".
This will continue to be the practice in community schools where consultation with parents is strongly promoted.
John Irwin is General Secretary of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, whose annual conference is taking place this week in Galway