The movie about Stephen Hawking, for which Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar, is called The Theory of Everything. That's because Hawking solved a big problem in physics by unifying the theory of big things (space) and the theory of small things (atoms) into one single theory. In physics, this was apparently, a very good thing.
Sadly, when theories of everything are applied to society's big problems, they aren't such a good thing. The Irish Times' theory of everything sees religion as the unifying rot behind Ireland's ills. This is a terrible theory. Religion has been the cause of many problems, but when religion is all you can see it becomes a black hole into which all complex problems disappear, and from which no solutions can emerge.
The resulting blind spot was exposed spectacularly last week in a major profile regarding the segregation of Irish primary school children. A survey showed that four-fifths of immigrant children are being educated in just over a fifth of our schools. This means there are many schools with no or very few immigrant children, while others have huge numbers. Apart from the sadness of having children so starkly segregated, this presents significant challenges for those schools trying to shoulder the burden of educating children who might need extra support. What's behind this segregation?
Geography is a rather obvious cause, since immigrant populations settle in particular urban areas and indeed the Irish Times analysis referred to this. But there's more to it than that, because an Educate Together principal Tom Moriarty was quoted as saying that: "There are schools in Dublin existing side by side where one is almost completely international in nature and the other is exclusively Irish."
So what's going on there? The analysis quickly zeroed in on religion. Schools use religion as a method by which immigrants could be discouraged from attending. When they run out of places, only Catholics need apply. What's the solution? Catholic schools need to "divest" themselves of their patronage of so many schools. Thus, free from the stifling control of priests, schools could open their gates to the Nirvana of multi-culturalism. We were reminded that this divestment process has crawled along without much progress for years.
The astonishing thing was that nowhere, no matter how many times I read Pamela Duncan's article, could I find the word "Gaelscoil". How could any credible analysis of segregation in primary schools be conducted without even mentioning the most substantial barrier to entry for immigrants - the Irish language? Parents have many legitimate reasons for sending their children to Gaelscoileannna, but motive is irrelevant if it's the net effect that concerns us. The reality is that in many towns and urban centres, the immigrant kids are at the local national school under the benign patronage of the much maligned Catholic church, while up at the Gaelscoil, free from the critical eye of the Irish Times or anyone else, you'll struggle to find a black child.
So in one Dublin national school they have a huge cross-section of children from Europe, Africa and Asia. Just 35pc of the pupils are Irish. A short distance away at a Gaelscoil 99pc of the pupils are Irish. But the commentariat can't takes its eyes off those infernal priests and their discriminating schools, while under the radar, the self-selecting families in the Gaelscoileanna sail along blissfully free of moral challenge.
I'm not saying those families are doing anything wrong - they're entitled to their choice - but why don't they merit a mention? Yet of the 14 schools in the survey with more than 66pc of pupils from a non-Irish origin, the majority - eight - were old-fashioned national schools under Catholic patronage. The rest were Educate Together, many newly built in new suburbs like Adamstown.
Since the analysis is flawed, so is the suggested solution. If religion is the problem then wresting schools away from the Church is the answer. In fact, the real problem is the obsession of Irish parents with the choice to which they believe themselves so entitled. They'd have heart failure if they were presented with a system like Finland's.
In the 1990s Finland experienced a deep recession. With a similar population size and distribution to Ireland, they made massive education cuts, closing 1,000 out of 4,000 primary schools. They funnelled all pupils into one school in each town. It saved them a pile of money, but by channelling resources into those single schools, they ended up with high standards which are the envy of Europe. (They did other stuff too but, alas, space prevents me from elaborating).
Could you imagine if you took those Gaeilscoils, two-teacher rural schools, private and religious schools away from Irish parents? The revolt would make the water charges protest look like a teddy bears' picnic.
I think a single-school policy is the correct one; morally, socially and economically. But it's parents not priests who are the major obstacle. If you're going to fight a war over segregation in schools, identifying the real problem is a good start.