Friday 19 April 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Christmas is safe... and so is the future of our schools'

Parents' concerns over multi-denominational schools reflect a natural fear of change, writes Sarah Caden

FESTIVE TRADITION: Christmas will still be celebrated by children in multi-denominational schools, as will holidays and special occasions like Easter or St Patrick’s Day, but the aim will be to embrace all faiths and also mark other religious festivals such as Diwali, Eid and Vaisakhi. Stock picture
FESTIVE TRADITION: Christmas will still be celebrated by children in multi-denominational schools, as will holidays and special occasions like Easter or St Patrick’s Day, but the aim will be to embrace all faiths and also mark other religious festivals such as Diwali, Eid and Vaisakhi. Stock picture

Sarah Caden

On Newstalk Breakfast last week, Henry McKean stood outside an information evening at Scoil an Duinninigh in Kinsealy, north County Dublin, and trod lightly with the parents whom he approached for comment.

"Words like dia dhuit would be removed from this school," one woman said to McKean.

"Is that true, though?" asked McKean, carefully.

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"It is," the woman said. "Dia dhuit is obviously hello, as Gaeilge, but it is obviously referencing God."

At the time, this is what the woman believed to be true. This is what she had been told about the changes that would occur if this gaelscoil, currently under Roman Catholic patronage, were to become a multi-denominational school.

At that point, information about potential divestment of religious patronage of multiple schools in the Malahide-Portmarnock-Kinsealy area was coming from one source. The school had let the parents know that they would have to vote on whether or not the school patronage should change.

And the school themselves were hardly going to argue for it.

Letters had been sent out to parents, outlining how the Irish for hello was among that which might not be tolerated under a multi-denominational management.

As Henry McKean gently suggested, this isn't true, but the outcry to which it contributed saw parents portrayed as stuck-in-the-past, backward Catholics. And whoever decided to spread the word that multi-denominational would mean the death of dia dhuit was to blame for that.

By suggesting that a multi-denominational school would alter the means of saying hello in Irish isn't only taking it too far, it's also welding together Catholicism and Irishness. It's suggesting that if you take away the Catholicism, you take away our Irishness.

Further, letters suggested, celebrations of Christmas, St Patrick's Day, and even, reportedly, garden fetes and book clubs, could be cancelled if the likes of Educate Together got their hands on things.

Needless to mention, cancelling of Christmas strikes at the heart of every child. Which then, in turn, strikes at the hearts of parents. The parents felt the children's distress, but also felt all the milestones of community life were under threat and that made them scared and angry.

It wasn't only an issue of resisting an influx of other religions, or a clinging to Catholicism because it is the true faith, it was possibly just an understandable fear of change.

These parents made a choice for their children, they set them on a specific path of education through Irish and down the route of the religious rites of First Holy Communion and Confirmation, which would punctuate their primary school education in second and sixth classes. They had chosen something specific, and now it seemed that this path was being snatched from in front of them.

One grandparent outside the Scoil an Duinninigh meeting proclaimed himself a "bit of an atheist", before explaining that he still wanted his grandchildren educated in the Catholic tradition. A lot of the upset, he said, came from the fact that "the Government haven't given them any information about it, that this has just come out of the blue".

Of course, it's not completely out of the blue. We all know that the Government is committed to supplying 400 multi-denominational schools across the country in the next decade. This is going to be achieved through a programme of both building new schools and divesting existing ones.

As it stands, 90pc of schools are under Roman Catholic patronage. Therefore, it will be the case that more Roman Catholic schools will be asked to become multi-denominational. The decision to approach these particular schools was borne out of a survey of parents of pre-school children in the area - also conducted in other parts of the country - which found a demand for a multi-denominational primary school.

No matter what the demand or interest, however, no single school either expects or necessarily accepts that it is their school that should change. It is in our human nature to resist change. It is in our human nature to feel extra protective of our children.

And, make no mistake, if the parents at any multi-denominational school of any kind were asked tomorrow to switch to a specific religious ethos, they'd be up in arms, too.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh blasted the "scaremongering" that went on around the proposed divestment of patronage, and pointed out that a bad example was being set to the children involved.

It was a pity his department hadn't got to parents first with some sort of balanced explanation of the proposed process, however. Instead, he had to resort to denying claims and pleading for ciunas.

"School authorities have a duty to share accurate and appropriate information," he said. "I am appealing directly to schools, management bodies and boards of management not to issue claims that have no basis in fact."

"Just to be clear," he also said, "Christmas will not be cancelled. Neither will any other typical school holiday like Easter or St Patrick's Day. Pancake Tuesday won't be banned. Nor will holidays or celebrations associated with the Celtic/pagan festival of Halloween."

Dia dhuit, incidentally, is an acceptable greeting in a multi-denominational Irish school. Multi-denominational schools, it was explained by Educate Together last week, don't deny God or religion, they embrace all faiths. Religion is taught in multi-denominational schools, but broadly, and no religion is "promoted", according to their literature.

In their own statement clarifying and correcting the claims made about their joy-busting school-running practices, Educate Together said last week that its schools enjoy Festivals of Light, seasonal get-togethers and winter fairs, "which incorporate elements of Christmas, Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice".

Further, said Educate Together, their "schools endeavour to mark Diwali, Eid, Vaisakhi and other religious festivals throughout the school term".

So Christmas is safe, but that's not to say that it will be celebrated in quite the way that it is in schools of Christian patronage. It is one festival, one celebration, it's not the primary one. Which, to be fair, is not what the parents of the affected schools in north County Dublin signed up to.

They signed up to something specific, but the reality is that Ireland isn't as singular any more and will become less so as we go on. No doubt, most parents at that meeting in Scoil an Duinninigh are okay with this, and yet the fear of change is real and understandable and maybe unfairly played upon.

At the end of last week, the Catholic Church announced it was to delay plans to ballot parents in the eight schools at the centre of the divestment furore. No new timeline has been offered, but a grace period was likely welcomed by all involved, not least parents who can calm concerned children that life will continue as they know it for now.

Easter is on. And may your god be with you, however you choose to greet him.

Sunday Independent

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