Critics have been pummelling Catholic primary schools these last few months accusing them variously of being 'divisive', of causing 'segregation', even of fostering 'educational apartheid'. Now it transpires that these self-same schools are owed an exceedingly large apology.
The accusation that Catholic schools are divisive gained traction last September when we discovered that an emergency school had to be established in Balbriggan in north County Dublin for children from African backgrounds. Most of the media coverage verged on the hysterical. It was a case of 'Balbriggan Burning'. Next up, a movie of the same name with the Catholic Church standing in for the Ku Klux Klan.
It then turned out that the mess in Balbriggan wasn't the result of 'educational apartheid' at all, but rather of bad planning. If the local authorities had expanded the existing schools the immigrant children could have been accommodated without a problem. But we didn't hear too much about that, and so the image of the Deep South circa 1961 stuck in people's minds.
At the time, Catholic education bodies tried to point out that their schools accommodate plenty of non-national children. But they weren't listened to. It didn't suit certain agendas which are intent on bringing an end to denominational education.
But now we know that Catholic primary schools are accommodating more than their fair share of immigrant children, and Traveller children, and children with 'special education needs'. We know this because the Department of Education has carried out an audit of both primary and secondary schools aimed at discovering how many children from the above categories are present in their student populations.
The audit can be found on the Department of Education website and received much (hysterical) coverage this week.
Catholic primary schools, like other denominational schools, do give preference to children of their own faith. This is why they exist. This is why many parents want them. But they are blind as to a child's social background, or educational standard.
The fact that the audit effectively exonerates Catholic schools has been almost completely ignored. But Catholic education officials shouldn't ignore it. They should quote the audit every time Catholic schools are faced with the appalling charge of being segregationist.
The coverage of the report, having virtually ignored what the audit reveals about Catholic schools, instead highlighted what the report supposedly reveals about secondary schools, and what it supposedly reveals is that it is secondary schools that are fostering, you guessed it, educational apartheid.
The audit has found that some secondary schools have far more children from non-national and Traveller backgrounds, or with special education needs, than others. But is this evidence of 'apartheid'? It would be if certain schools explicitly barred children simply because they were immigrants or because they were Travellers.
But that would be illegal and no school has such an enrolment policy.
What some schools do have is a policy that favours family members of past and present pupils over others. Maybe this should be reviewed, but with an open mind that doesn't automatically dismiss it as an option.
However, what is generally happening across the country, and what in most cases explains the clustering of certain children in certain schools, is that children from a given social background generally live in the same areas and go to the same schools.To borrow a cliche, this is not rocket science. If you go to a school in a middle class area you will find in that school mostly middle class children.
You probably won't find any Traveller children because Travellers don't tend to live in middle class areas. Nor will you find many immigrants because immigrants usually can't afford to live in middle class areas.
Nor, for that matter, will you find many children with 'special educational needs' for the simple reason that middle-class parents invest so much time and energy in the education of their children.
The result is that in national tests of reading and maths their children tend to score well.
This means they generally don't qualify as having 'special education needs'.Unless you favour busing children from middle class areas to working class areas, and vice versa, in order to mix the social classes there is absolutely no solution to this. But to bus children back and forth in this way would be social engineering on a grand and completely unacceptable scale. It would also be vastly unpopular with many parents. In fact, such a move would be deeply undemocratic and involve such a degree of State interference in our lives as to be virtually totalitarian.This is the nub of the issue. Once you convince yourself that the present composition of our schools is the result of 'educational apartheid', the only real solution is State interference of almost Stalinist dimensions.
The 'cure' is far worse than the alleged disease. And let's be clear, the disease is a myth. It's true that different social groups are to be found in different schools. But this isn't 'apartheid'.It's simply the way societies naturally organise themselves.