Language a bigger barrier than baptism
There should be no choice of primary school, argues Sarah Carey. But why do accusations of exclusion only fall on religion?
I'm often accused of being right-wing, which I think is unfair. I firmly believe in the power of public services to achieve equality of opportunity and above all - fairness. But, I'm also a pragmatist. Change comes by increment, not revolution. And most relevant for today's purposes, I'm alert to the ruthlessness of the middle class who dress up their self-serving hypocrisies in pieties - the greatest of all being the dogma of choice. The sanctimonious mantra of choice often disguises the pernicious philosophy of individuality that has created a fragmented, self-selecting society in which liberal slogans are a mockery to those who don't have the privilege of control over their lives.
In some areas of life, the right to choose really means the right to get ahead at someone else's expense. I think a good society is one in which individual sovereignty is pooled for the greater good. A bit like the EU.
For example, in an ideal world I'd ban access to private health care. If the people who made decisions about public health services were obliged to use them, I think the standard would be considerably improved.
The same goes for education, especially and most particularly primary education. As Richard Bruton, Minister for Education, announced a consultation about the "baptism barrier" this week, a rather predictable round of hackneyed polarised rows kicked off in the media.
In line with my general principle, I think there should be no choice about schools. I'd have one school in each area and everybody - and I mean everybody - would go to the one school. I'd create inclusivity by abolishing exclusivity. No religion, no private schools and none of this nationalistic Irish language nonsense, which, as far as I'm concerned, is the ultimate barrier in the Irish education system, but escapes the judgment, or even mention, of any commentator in our public sphere.
The One School system has two benefits.
The first is social and political. I come from a rural area where everyone went to the local national school. There was nowhere else to go. It always struck me when I got out of the cul-de-sac and began to socialise with well-off people, from yes, South County Dublin, how they live in a social bubble. In the country there are few bad neighbourhoods. Poor people weren't some abstract problem to be solved by politicians, but your neighbours.
For sure, that had a stifling quality to life well documented elsewhere and rural poverty had the disadvantage of being hidden, but, at the very least, the children mixed with each other at school. In urban areas, the Choose Your Choice school of life meant the middle class were able to segregate their children from undesirables at a far earlier stage.
The other benefit of One School is that it's a much more cost-effective way of managing resources and achieving better educational outcomes.
I often quote Finland in this regard. During the 1990s, Finland had a severe recession. With a population of similar size and distribution to Ireland, it had nearly 4,000 primary schools.
So it closed nearly one-third of them. The country saved a fortune on costs and then trained up the teachers, who also benefited from being together where they could learn from each other. It did several other things, too, which alas space prevents me from elucidating, but the result was that Finland shot from the bottom to the top of OECD education league tables. Everyone did better when there was no choice.
It would be great if we did it here, but removing choice would be opposed by almost everyone. We are where we are, with a religious patronage system originating in 1831 when the famous Stanley Letter established primary education in Ireland. The original goal was for mixed education, but the churches - Protestant and Catholic - opposed it.
To be fair, nearly 200 years later, I find it difficult to criticise the Catholic Church's achievement. The concept of having local stakeholders managing schools, heavily dependent on local fundraising, has been largely successful. When you see people crawling over each other to get into faith schools abroad, one can accuse the Church of many things, but failing to efficiently manage primary education isn't one of them.
And this much I know - if any government attempted to kick the priests out of the schools in any manner other than incremental, there'd be war. Communion and confirmation are cultural rituals more than religious sacraments. Any priest who suggests to non-Mass attending parents that they shouldn't put their child forward for communion finds himself on the pyre of Liveline in jig time.
So I'm not going to condemn priests for oppressing anyone when they run the vast majority of schools in a genuinely inclusive manner. I know they do because my children attend the same primary school I did and their friends are Russian, Asian, Nigerian, Eastern European and a worrying splattering of Dubs.
If anecdata is not your preference, consult the census of nationalities of primary schools which shows that, in urban areas, the Catholic national schools have a very high proportion of non-Irish citizens in attendance. The practical reality is that throughout the country, and outside a few very specific areas which have a shortage of overall school places, the priests take in everybody - and they do a very good job.
Is it ideal that the religion is part of the system?
No, but does it work and have the support of the vast majority of parents? Yes, it does.
How do I know? Because while the media fulminate over the injustice of their children being exposed to the meta-narrative of our entire western culture in the form of Christian religious instruction, take a look at a much-quoted 2013 survey by the Department of Education in 44 towns.
The outstanding result of the survey was the incredibly low response rate. My conclusion was that people who don't respond don't care, because they're happy with the status quo.
One can argue about the needs of minorities; but in an education system based on the fundamental political principle of choice, expressly confirmed in the Constitution itself, one has to be realistic about how far one should go to suit minorities in avoiding exposure to the culture of the majority.
Which brings me to Gaelscoileanna. I've nothing against Irish, though I note that one can very easily opt out of religion classes in Catholic schools, but you can't opt out of Irish in any school without a learning disability.
What I do resent is that while the priest-bashing is indulged, there isn't a single word said against Gaelscoileanna, even though if we're talking about barriers to multiculturalism it's patently obvious that language is a far more ruthless obstacle to foreigners than the relatively benign teachings of modern Catholicism.
I can't help thinking of the World War II arguments of George Orwell that pacifists were objectively pro-Nazi by their refusal to fight.
Later he recanted and said intent was relevant. But when it comes to the segregation of children, I think the intentions of the parents who might be genuinely interested in educating their children through Irish have to be cast aside if the net effect is that the Gaelscoileanna, with their almost 100pc native Irish demographic, are objectively segregationist.
If those schools have almost no foreigners, while up the road the priests are taking in everyone, this merits some attention.
Ignoring it serves no purpose other than pandering to anti-religious sentiment and allowing the self-selection of a relatively significant minority go unjudged.
So let's talk about exclusion. And let's look at who's doing the excluding, and how.