Wednesday 19 June 2019

Tweaking school admissions won't solve problem of choice

There are just too many clashing principles at work in our schools. We either protect all religions or none, writes Sarah Carey

What barrier? The number of pupils rejected by Catholic schools for not having a baptismal cert is tiny
What barrier? The number of pupils rejected by Catholic schools for not having a baptismal cert is tiny

Sarah Carey

I'm occasionally accused of being a conservative but when it comes to education I'm actually a radical. Given a blank slate, I'd be Finland. In the 1990s, in the teeth of a recession and dealing with big public spending cuts, Finland closed one-third of its primary schools. They piled all the pupils into large schools in the nearest big town, and trained up the teachers. Though it was done to save money, the result was a dramatic improvement in standards and the country shot to the top of the OECD academic league tables.

So in Finland; there's one school and no "ethos" menu. No picking and choosing over gender, religion, language; and no parents fretting over which school might confer an advantage on their little pet. And almost no private schools. I entirely approve. Children shouldn't be separated for any reason, class being the most destructive division of all.

But if we tried that here can you imagine the reaction? There would be a revolution.

I have five points to make about Richard Bruton's latest proposals to "do something" about the "baptism barrier" and that's the first and most important one.

If we abolished choice, trade unions and churches would protest but the shrillest cries would come from the vast bulk of parents who demand that whatever else happens in education, they reserve the right to choose which school their child attends. From the rural school aficionados to the private-school class in Dublin, not to mention the Gaeilgeoir, religion would be lost in the mob of those clamouring to choose their choice.

This is the cultural and let us not forget - constitutional - reality behind any initiative to deal with the legacy problem of our school patronage system.

The second point is that nothing the Minister for Education is proposing will create a single extra school place. If the Department of Education is incapable of counting children who live in well-known congested areas and providing an adequate number of school places for them; it doesn't matter if they kicked every priest out tomorrow: there would still be a shortage of school places.

Further, the number of pupils rejected by Catholic schools for not having a baptismal certificate (the "baptism barrier") is actually tiny.

In an albeit incomplete survey of schools in the greater Dublin area, where school places are in short supply, just 1.2pc of pupils were rejected for not being Catholic. This problem occurred in 17 particular schools where demand for places exceeded supply. In fact, Catholic pupils were rejected, too, but for other reasons unrelated to religion.

So we need to distinguish between these two separate issues: shortage of places and religious patronage. Both are problems, but tweaking the latter will have no impact on the former.

Thirdly, let me refer back to my idyllic blank slate and Finland. Accustomed as we are to being reminded we aren't Greece, the problem is we're not Finland either. Dr Maija Salokangas is a Finnish academic who works in the education department in Trinity College Dublin and she cautioned me that you can't transplant elements of one education system into another and expect the same results. Education systems arise out of cultures, not merely government strategies.

There is no guarantee - none at all - that adopting the Finnish system would work here.

We aren't a blank slate. Our primary schools are the product of a 150-year-old system, with which most people are quite satisfied. Or at worst, are anxious about changing lest we end up worse off.

I can see why. Our local priest is a powerhouse of energy and a genuine anchor in the community, which in a world of social atomisation is not something I take for granted.

In the midst of "austerity", two of our three parish schools were significantly extended and refurbished. The third, our one, was demolished and completely rebuilt. We have brilliant principals but I have no doubt that our priest's drive and determination was a key factor in that infrastructural achievement. Why would I want this guy kicked out? He's doing a good job.

But what about the presence of religion in the day-to-day life of the school? I know it's far from ideal, but with my first-hand experience, I see it as fairly benign.

In fact, a quite different narrative is played out than that presented by oppressed columnists in national newspapers. Each year our catechist has to give a talk to parents of children preparing for Communion and Confirmation, in which she smilingly and gingerly suggests that if the parents have no interest in religion or ever attending Mass, they might want to ask themselves why they are presenting their children for the sacraments. She has to do so carefully because the tension does not emerge from those who feel "forced" to comply, but those who'll be ringing up Liveline if they think they're being cut out for being bad Catholics.

I usually end up feeling sorry for the priest who has to indulge the demands of his shamelessly fickle flock, rather than seeing him as the indoctrinator of small children.

Also, having twice participated in the parent-led part of the programme for Confirmation, I see it as a fantastic opportunity to talk about ethics, values and choices with the children. It's a great vehicle for important conversations, which true, could be achieved with a philosophy class. But we don't have a philosophy curriculum. Come back to me with one and I'll happily support it. In the meantime, let's keep what we have until there's something else there.

But to crucial point four: equality: what about those children who are of a different religion or none, and are involuntarily exposed to religious instruction and feel excluded? It's just wrong.

I accept the soundness of the principle, but there's another way of looking at it. At my son's sixth-class graduation this year, I studied the cohort of nearly 60 pupils. There were a handful of black students; some freakishly tall girls; a couple of red-heads; and presumably a peppering of gay boys or girls.

Lots of those 12-year-olds differed in fundamental ways from various norms and there was nothing they could do about it. It is certainly the obligation of the majority to ensure that any differences in identity are not merely tolerated but accepted. But likewise, people in minorities also have to travel a path in which they accept that being different is OK. Ask any gay person about that journey. It's all part of accepting who we are and a key milestone in developing resilience.

Looked at it this way, we shouldn't worry too much about the minority in the class that aren't Catholics.

Once they aren't being forced to believe anything then what is the actual harm done? They are learning that some people believe strange things and say weird prayers and sure if that's what they're into, so what? Has anyone ever considered that being an atheist in a class of Catholics might actually be a good thing?

Finally, point five: What Bruton appears to be suggesting is that Catholic schools will not be allowed to refuse admission to a pupil on the basis of religion: but minority faiths will. Of course, the reason religion is protected in schools in the first place was in order to protect a minority: Protestants.

Conveniently, State funding of Protestant private schools resulted in funding of Catholic private schools which suited upper middle-class Catholics. Under the guise of religion the class system was preserved.

But consider a new factor: Islam and the concern over radicalisation in this multicultural approach. If Richard Bruton is serious about introducing pluralism into primary schools, which is a good thing, how can he force it upon Catholics, whilst simultaneously doubling down on protectionism for other religions, in particular one giving rise to concerns about fundamentalism?

In the name of equality, I'd say it's got to be all or nothing. We either protect all religions or none, and, as far as I'm aware, that's what the Constitution says, too.

To my mind there are simply too many clashing principles at work to solve the school patronage problem by a bit of tweaking here and there.

There is no way to preserve the right of parents to choose schools and the obligation to protect religious ethos in schools.

Choice and multiculturalism are, I believe, in conflict with true pluralism and genuine equality. As with health, we've a system whereby the State happily agreed to pay public servants to work in privately church-owned buildings. As with health that had enormous benefits, whilst simultaneously creating tricky problems as our society diversified.

As with health, it's going to take decades to unravel.

I think it will happen school by school and most probably require a referendum at some point.

In the meantime, those parents who cannot get a school place should ask the department to create those places, and those who have a place but in a Catholic school should know that SnapChat is their real problem.

You can wind yourself up about this, but, honestly, in this day and age, there are worse things in life than being subjected to a few Hail Marys.

Sunday Independent

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