Pluralism must replace church's grip on schools, says McAleese
Former president Mary McAleese has warned that any monopoly of the education system by one patron is neither healthy nor good and that greater pluralism must be encouraged.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, the former head of State said parents wanted more choice for their children, in contrast with the historic dominance of the Catholic Church in education.
She said: "Monopolies in education are not good. For one system to monopolise or one type of education to monopolise the education system is not healthy."
Mrs McAleese highlighted what she said was the "strongest argument" in favour of breaking a monopoly of educational patronage, a 50-year-old Vatican document on education called 'Gravissimum Educationis'.
"This is certainly not a new debate," she said, adding that the Vatican II document, which was published in 1965, "told us 50 years ago that we needed to look at our education system and address the issue of monopoly and ensure that there was choice and pluralism in education",
Dr McAleese, who last year was appointed Distinguished Professor in Irish Studies at St Mary's University London, said the Irish education system was now having "a really healthy debate" about developing an evolving system that offers choice.
However, this was being done under the pressure of numbers, changing times and growing secularism.
"The desire for greater choice is fuelled by the desire of parents and what they want for their children," said Dr McAleese.
Speaking about the Catholic Church's monopoly of education, she suggested that it was a legacy of history linked to the "vast numbers of Catholics on the island" and the structure of education.
Praising Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin's willingness to divest Catholic patronage in response to calls for greater pluralism and choice, she said the church was not seeking patronage of every single school.
"It is more than willing to acknowledge the right of parents to choose, the importance of choice and that we are now in a much more pluralistic situation in Ireland," she said.
Dr McAleese noted that a significant proportion of the population was not born in Ireland or was not ethnically of an Irish background.
"Many coming into the country will not necessarily want Catholic schools, they may want other kinds of schools," she said.
There were also native Irish citizens expressing a desire for greater choice.
Suggesting that the education system had been "caught in a kind of a bind" due to the historic legacy of the large number of Catholic schools, she warned that there were issues around creating greater plurality which could not be sorted out "in five minutes".
"They are things that require strategic planning for the future. It seems to me that we are in the middle of a debate - 50 years later than we should have had it."
She said she was speaking as someone who went through the Catholic school system in Northern Ireland.
"My husband and I would be the first to say how much we owe it," she remarked, although she acknowledged that "the world is a changed place from then".
Dr McAleese said: "There is still a huge demand for denominational education, not just in the Catholic Church but in the Church of Ireland tradition and the Jewish and Muslim traditions as well. Many of them just want their own faith schools and our Constitution and culture has been to honour their choice.
"Now we have other people arguing for interfaith schools, non-faith schools, inter-denominational schools and non-denominational schools. Those voices are bigger in number than ever and I look forward to each of those being honoured in the way that faith schools were honoured in the past."