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David Quinn: To say religious schools exclude is nonsense

And so it has begun, but how and where will it end? Ruairi Quinn this week formally established a national forum on education that will seek to work out how many Catholic schools will be handed over to new management bodies over the next few years, and how it will be done.

Quinn puts a figure of 50pc on the number. It's a figure I've used myself in the past. It could turn out to be that high, eventually, but it could also turn out to be much lower. We'll see.

In this debate, horrible, 'exclusive' Catholic schools will be pitted against nice, 'inclusive' alternatives like Educate Together.

It will be said that while Catholic and other denominational schools exclude, or make to feel unwelcome, those who belong to other faiths or to no faith make everyone feel welcome.

A few nights ago, RTE news ran a report which seemed to bear out this view. The reporter turned up at an Educate Together school in Dublin 8 where 250 pupils are enrolled for the 28 places the school has to offer next September.

The report said the two nearby Catholic schools, one run by the Presentation Sisters and the other by the Christian Brothers (the Edmund Rice Schools Trust to be more precise) were experiencing declining numbers.

So the impression was given that the local Catholic schools were being abandoned in favour of the local Educate Together school with its more welcoming and open philosophy.

But this area of Dublin is a microcosm in no way representative of Dublin as a whole, let alone the country.

It's true that the Christian Brothers school at Synge Street is in decline, but that's because the area itself is in decline.

However, according to the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, overall its four schools in the Dublin 8 area have not been declining and last year they experienced an increase in numbers.

The Presentation Sisters told me that there had been a decline in the past in their Dublin 8 school because the local population itself was declining, but as a result of a big influx of immigrants in recent years this situation has been reversed.

Therefore, the local Catholic schools are not in decline overall.

In addition, to gain a true picture of what is happening in Dublin 8, we would need to know how many of the 250 pupils whose names are down for the local Educate Together school are also down for the other schools.

Every parent knows that it's best to put their children's names down for every school in a given area just in case they can't get them into their chosen school. The fact that so many are trying to enroll their kids in the Educate Together school in no way proves they are thereby rejecting the local Catholic schools.

But perhaps they are only putting their children's names down for the local Catholic schools as a back-up? Well, we don't know that one way or the other, but what we do know is that even when a Catholic school and an Educate Together school are operating side-by-side in an area with a big population of non-Catholic immigrants, the Catholic school is still popular.

Adamstown on the outskirts of Dublin proves this. Adamstown has a very big immigrant population, many of whom are not Catholic. A Catholic school operates right alongside an Educate Together school and both are popular.

The Catholic school accommodates plenty of non-Catholic children whose parents are often African Christians who choose to send their kids to a school with a specifically religious ethos.

In other words, they find a denominational school, even if it is not of their own denomination, more congenial than a non-denominational or a multi-denominational school.

This is an absolutely key point. It blows out of the water the assumption that denominational schools somehow 'exclude' anyone not of their own denomination.

If that was so, then no non-Catholic would choose a Catholic school over an Educate Together-style school given a choice.

But that is not so, because non-Catholic parents often like religious schools per se and in addition tend to like single-sex schools, something that is regularly overlooked.

It is in, in fact, a prejudice to assume denominational schools automatically make people of other faiths and none feel unwelcome.

As a rule, only those who actively dislike religion feel unwelcome in such schools, which is why RTE often ends up interviewing very secular parents when reporting on this issue rather than African or Asian parents. Not untypically, the parent interviewed is from a highly secularised European country, rather than from a highly religious country like Nigeria or India.

So this forum should not be based on the notion that denominational schools are automatically unwelcoming, exclusive places. Indeed, if this is the hidden assumption of the forum, it will be off to a very bad start.

Irish Independent