Sunday 26 May 2019

Vision of the future

THE Catholic bishops' pastoral letter entitled 'Vision 08', to be published today, will set forth what is indeed a vision for the future of Irish primary and secondary education. It would hardly be too much to call it a revolution.

For centuries the Church has played a central role in the system. For the most part, that role has been worthy, indeed noble. Generation after generation of children has benefited. And where there have been gross defects, where shocking incidents of physical and sexual abuse have come to light, the Church has acknowledged its guilt.

When it expressed remorse for the terrible lapses of the past, it entered a new era of openness. The same openness characterises 'Vision 08', compiled after three years of consultation and describing the challenges of the 21st century with a frankness which, until very recently, would have been unthinkable.

It has long been obvious that the existing system cannot survive, for two reasons. The vocations crisis has presented the Church with an insuperable personnel problem. Secondly, parents increasingly demand choice.

The bishops must have been gravely tempted to close their eyes to the challenges. Instead, they have confronted them.

Their pastoral letter envisages the handing over of more secondary schools to trusts composed mainly of lay people, on the model of the Edmund Rice Trust, which is taking over responsibility for nearly 100 Christian Brothers' schools. The ethos of Catholic schools will be maintained, but more and more parents will have the choice of multi-denominational education.

This is an acknowledgment of reality. Most of the schools recently opened are multi-denominational. But there is a significant guarantee in relation to the Catholic schools. They will welcome pupils of all denominations. It remains to be seen how the guarantee will work in practice. Choice -- of Catholic institutions, those of minority faiths, or multi-denominational schools -- will never be readily available to all parents. In very many cases, geography will continue to determine where a child goes to school.

But it is comforting to know that the bishops propose to open their schools to families of other faiths. It is another instance of openness on their part. More important, it may be read a marker for the treatment of immigrants and their children.

'Vision 08' looks bravely and wisely to the future. It deserves a thoughtful, fair response.

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