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In My Opinion: It's our duty to hear the needs of our CoI and Protestant schools

Pluralism, in its classical sense, has been described as the desire for small, closely knit groups to act in a natural form of association as the best defence for the rights of the individual.

History teaches us treatment of the minority by the majority is the measure of the inclusivity and pluralism of that society.

A dialogue on pluralism and diversity in Irish education was commenced last June when the National Forum on Pluralism and Patronage in the primary education sector was launched.

The existence of Church of Ireland/Protestant schools means that parents of religious minorities can ensure their children are educated in schools of their own ethos.

The importance of the network of religious minority primary schools to the provision of pluralism and diversity in education should not be ignored.

These schools number only 200 out of the total 3,300 primary schools across the State and serve in large a rural scattered community. They sit at the heart of both rural Ireland and Irish society.

Church of Ireland and Protestant primary schools are typically not large. Around 40 of such schools have fewer than 26 pupils and a further 90 schools have fewer than 86 pupils. Under budgetary measures in 2012, school enrolment figures determine whether schools will lose a teacher. It is estimated that 60pc of these schools will lose a teacher in the next three to four years.

Such schools need to operate a balancing act. They must ensure continuing enrolments, yet as a priority also serve their own community. For many rural schools serving fixed-population areas, increasing enrolment is not an option.

Recent changes to the provision of school transport means many rural schools -- of all patronage -- will lose their transport. In rural areas transport can be the crucial issue in determining whether parents can send children to a school of their own ethos/choice.

If a school bus transport service is withdrawn in a rural area, the survival of that school is immediately under threat.

Church of Ireland and Protestant schools are particularly vulnerable when policy decisions are made that are not mindful to the effects these policies will have on religious minority schools.

Economic cuts form the premise for much of what is happening to our schools. Yet the minister poses the challenge of how, in the desire to reflect the diversity in our society, can we cater for diversity in education?

Irish education operates in a religiously demarcated denominational system of education. Some would point to this factor as being "the problem" and I would agree that the pursuance of true pluralism in society is the accommodation of all.

One might argue however, that the immediate challenge is to cater for the existing provision of diversity in education within the context of severe economic challenges.

Dr Ken Fennelly is Secretary, Church of Ireland General Synod Board of Education

Irish Independent