Parental choice and local context will be key factors in determining how our education system will evolve in the coming years.
The Joint Managerial Body (JMB) represents the range of school types in the voluntary secondary school system.
We reflect the pluralism available, and our sector comprises schools that are single-sex, co-educational, denominational, multi-denominational, non-denominational, boarding schools, schools in the DEIS programme, fee-charging schools, and scoileanna lán Ghaeilge.
These are all integral to the education system, and have successfully served the needs of local communities and the country.
International indices on investment in education all point to an ongoing deficit in this country – and yet our system is lauded abroad and enjoys the confidence of the majority of the population at home.
There are many reasons for this value we place on education. We have a history of service through many generations – from religious orders and lay people alike – that established standards and imbued a sense of volunteerism and a community structure that strengthened a sense of connection to the local school.
Another factor is the healthy competition between schools, and school types, and a diversity of approach that can prompt creativity and help to raise standards.
There is no perfect school, and no perfect school system. Each of our schools has a context that will have influenced its evolution – and that determines how it will adapt or change, as all schools inevitably do, to cater for future need.
There has been debate recently as to the value of the single-sex school. Most of the schools in our sector are single-sex and have served their communities well. That is not to say that they are any better than co-educational schools. All school types will have strengths and weaknesses. The point is that each has a particular context, and serves a local need. How a school operates or develops is ultimately dependent on the exercise of parental choice.
We find that new schools and amalgamations are increasing the proportion of co-educational schools, and the diversity this brings is very positive and increases choice.
Context is also a factor in how the fee-charging sector has developed. Much of this relates to providing education to children of minority faiths and maintaining a boarding school component which serves the needs of many families.
The choice that parents make to send their children to fee-charging schools saves the State an estimated €130m a year – money that can be allocated elsewhere, such as to schools that serve the needs of disadvantaged communities.
For-profit education is becoming more prevalent internationally. Fees are modest by international comparison, and all our schools are charities where any finance generated has to support the educational enterprise.
The relatively small number of schools in this sector generates an inordinate amount of comment, and perhaps we should reflect on what is a proportional response and the legitimacy of parental choice.
Likewise, when deciding to send their children to a denominational school, parents have the final say.
A survey on perceptions of Catholic schools reveals confidence in denominational education. More than 70pc of parents supported the role of the Catholic church in schools.
Given that roughly half of second-level schools have a denominational ethos, this points to genuine pluralism and respect for parental choice. What also emerges is a concern among many parents that there may be a lack of resilience in younger generations in the absence of attachment to any kind of higher purpose or reason.
In this regard, the standards that parents tend to value in a school with a Catholic ethos are firmly rooted in the idea of authentic holism, which includes the sacred.
We are heirs to quite a complex educational system, but it has served us well, and as it has grown organically, we will adapt it over time in like manner.
Education demands evolution and change. Schools will always have to adjust and innovate to remain the relevant, vibrant and creative agencies we all demand. We must encourage and promote this, permit a diversity of provision, and, within that, have confidence in the strength of what we have, and the legitimacy of the choices our parents will make.
John Curtis is general secretary of the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools / JMB