Brave new world for integrated education
The announcement by Education Minister Mary Hanafin that a new State model of community national school under the patronage of County Dublin VEC (Vocational Education Committee) is to be piloted at two Dublin locations is an historic and significant event.
It formally signifies the State's response to the need for plurality of patronage at primary level. I believe, in fact, that the minister's initiative in moving forward with these pilot schools is a defining event in the ongoing evolution of educational provision by the State.
Being a former primary school principal for eight years and now the general secretary of the national representative association for vocational education committees gives me a unique insight into the benefits and supports that the VEC, as patron, can bring to the community model of primary school.
As patron, the VEC can actively support the school, if requested, in terms of HR supports, building maintenance, financial expertise and much more.
Hopefully this will allow the principal to devote more time to educational leadership in the school and community.
In time, the availability of such valuable supports will, I believe, be resoundingly welcomed by the primary education sector as a much needed additional benefit.
VECs have a distinguished track record at second level in delivering multi-denominational education and this experience can be brought to bear at primary level also. The new proposed primary school model envisages diversity under one roof, rather than diversity under 10 roofs.
Integration will be a defining feature of the new model school and will provide for religious education and faith formation during the school day as well as a general ethics programme for those who indicate a preference for such a programme.
The department's wide-ranging consultative process and the leadership shown by Mary Hanafin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the INTO, County Dublin VEC and others played a significant role in bringing about a fundamental alternative school patronage model where there is an obvious need and demand.
A rapidly changing society makes new demands on the State to deliver a school that reflects the diversity of the community it serves.
County Dublin VEC is to be congratulated for taking on the responsibility for the development of these pilot schools and no doubt its expertise will ensure the success of the venture.
These are community schools that will seek to serve the entire community. They will play a significant role in promoting social integration and cohesion. The challenge facing us all is to ensure that these schools can fulfil a true community role by serving the whole community within the catchment area.
The proposed community-based primary school model under VEC patronage will fill a real void in the context of an evolving education sector.
The State owes an immense debt to religious orders and diocesan authorities of all faiths for their massive contribution to the education of generations of Irish school children. The modern Irish State has evolved to an extent that VECs, acting as arms of the State, will now be available as a further option for patronage as the need arises. This is a pilot project and the minister is right to adopt a "toe in the water" approach to get the formula right.
As nothing is written in stone there will be ample opportunity to modify procedures after the piloting of the new schools. Getting the right procedures and the right legislative supports is key to long-term delivery and a long school life for this model of school patronage.
The framers of the 1930 Vocational Education Act were considered visionaries in their day. That act has stood the test of time and is as relevant and vibrant today as it was almost eight decades ago.
In the late 1920s, Free State legislators wrestled with the need to provide for diversity in the belief then that the northern state might not survive.
Ironically today's legislators must also address diversity with that same sense of urgency.
Perhaps in decades to come there will be genuine acclaim for this significant initiative in the constantly evolving education sector.
While a lot will change much will stay the same. There will be an independent board of management (with VEC patronage representation); salaries will be paid by the Department of Education and Science and, probably, school funding will remain an on-going challenge.
If, in time, this versatile model of primary school can adapt to different circumstances and respond to diverse community needs in the years ahead then this will have been a successful and defining initiative in the history of Irish education.