Friday 18 October 2019

Protestant schools' row can unite the churches

David Quinn

WHEN the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, accused the Department of Education the other day of leading a "very determined and doctrinaire" attack on Protestant schools he could have as easily accused them of attacking denominational schools in general.

This week, it transpired that the department has written to the Catholic hierarchy asking them for a list of schools they are willing to hand over to the State or some other managerial body.

Admittedly, this was prompted by remarks made by one or two bishops to the effect that the Catholic Church controls too many schools (it does) and that in principle they would be willing to give up some of them.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that any particular community in any particular locality in Ireland is clamouring to have its local Catholic primary school changed into some other kind of school, so the department has sent off its request to the bishops with indecent haste.

Perhaps the bishops ought to tell the department that they will compile a list just as soon as it starts approving the odd new Catholic secondary school again, something it hasn't done in 15 years despite the fact that in that time satellite towns have sprung up like mushrooms all over the country.

A few months back, Ruairi Quinn accused the department of having a "deferential" attitude towards the Catholic Church.

He would have been much closer to the mark had he suggested that the department would gladly see the back of all denominational schools, Catholic as well as Protestant.

It's hard to see any other motivation for the cutbacks the department has inflicted on Protestant secondary schools. Those schools suffer from two fatal flaws in the eyes of education officials: the first is that they are denominational; and the second is that they are fee-paying. Perhaps a third flaw is that they are also boarding schools.

This makes them doubly and triply "elitist" in the eyes of the department, which in reality is deferential to the left-wing doctrine, increasingly touted by the teachers' unions, that anything other than a one-size-fits-all state-run schooling system is "two-tier", "elitist", "segregationist", and even smacks of "educational apartheid". These guys take no prisoners.

Why do Protestant secondary schools tend to be both fee-paying and boarding? One reason is that the Protestant population in Ireland is very dispersed especially in rural areas, and if you want to send your child to a Protestant school you often have to send them far from home; and that inevitably means you will have to send them to a boarding school.

But in order to make this a practical option for parents who are not well-off, the State has always heavily subsidised these schools. In fact, they have historically been more heavily subsidised than Catholic schools. It is this extra subsidy that the department has withdrawn.

This will save the State only €3m per annum but the withdrawal of this sum threatens the viability of a large part of the Protestant sector and it certainly threatens their ability to accept the children of less well-off families.

Given the tiny amount the State is saving, and its disproportionate effect on Protestant schools, it's no wonder Archbishop Neill accuses the department of being "doctrinaire".

Bizarrely, the Government is using the Constitution to justify its stance. This is hilarious, of course, given all the other parts of the Constitution the Government continually ignores -- for example, the provisions on marriage and the family.

In this instance, the department is claiming that it is unconstitutional to give more money to Protestant schools than Catholic schools. But the State also gives more money to VEC schools, so what's the difference? In any event, this difference in funding has existed for 40 years so why bring it up now?

Obviously, some inventive civil servant, who had already decided to target Protestant schools, is using this as a justification for something that was already decided.

THE report into child abuse in the Dublin diocese will be out shortly. The Ryan report has already been used as a battering ram against denominational schools, something Dr Paul Colton, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, decried at the time. We can expect the Dublin report to be used in the same way.

However, the increasingly shrill attacks on church-run schools are having one good effect at least -- it is causing the various churches to pull together in common cause.

Witness how Archbishop Diarmuid Martin defended Protestant schools on Morning Ireland this week.

The churches will have more and more reason to come together in the years ahead as an agenda of aggressive secularism strives to push them from the public square completely.

The battle for Protestant schools is one that has to be won, for the sake of all church-run schools and the many parents who still want them. As the saying goes, if the churches don't hang together, they will hang separately.

dquinn@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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