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No politicians and priests, just parents

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Who should decide the future of our schools, the Church or the State? My answer to this is that neither should. The people who should principally decide the future of our schools are parents because it is their children who attend our schools.

When the question is framed as, Church or State, many people, especially those of a liberal or secular outlook, will answer "State" every time. Quite apart from their distaste for the Church, the idea that a religious organisation of any stripe should run so many of our schools offends their secular principles.

As we know, the debate over the future of our schools has been re-opened by the shortage of school places in areas affected by rapid population growth, and more particularly by the fact that a new primary school has had to be opened in Balbriggan, which caters overwhelmingly for children from African backgrounds.

The spectre of "educational apartheid" has been raised, or of a "two-tier" education system.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, has declared more than once that he has no problem with the idea of a wider variety of schools being offered to parents, even if this means the Catholic Church having to retreat from a number of its schools to help meet the demand for alternatives.

This offer has received a tepid response at best. The fear is that native Irish people will opt for Catholic and other denominational schools, leaving the multi-denominational sector to immigrants and that the two will never meet.

The way to avert this, we are told, is a State takeover of the education system and a one-size-fits-all model of schooling offered to everyone. In this way we would not end up with a two-tier school system, let alone "educational apartheid".

What is left out of this analysis are parents and the kinds of schools they want for their children. What they want, we can safely assume, is a high standard of education and a good school ethos. These wishes are not necessarily easily reconciled with the wish to use schools as engines of social integration.

The main social divisions in Ireland, as in most societies, have in fact nothing to do with either race or religion. The main division in Irish society is between the social classes.

If we want a truly integrated school system, then they should bring together not only the different races and religions, but also the different social classes. Maybe this is a worthy goal, but no matter what lip service the middle class might pay it, they wouldn't tolerate it for an instant in practice.

Quite apart from reasons of snobbery, they would be terrified that bussing in lots of kids from working class areas into schools in middle class areas, and vice versa, would harm the educational prospects of their children.

Most of the people agitating hardest and loudest for a more integrated school system and for more State control are from very homogeneous middle class areas. They send their children to schools in which there are practically no children from either working class or immigrant backgrounds.

Therefore, educational integration is not something that is ever going to directly affect either them, or their children. If those who want a properly integrated school system are sincere about this, then let them start with their own schools and let's see lots of immigrant children and working class children bussed into Dublin 4 and other middle class areas.

In fact, the vast majority of middle class parents (hopefully) would have little problem with the idea of children from immigrant backgrounds mixing with their children. The problem would arise if lots of those immigrant children couldn't speak English and therefore the education of their own children was under threat. Then they would rebel.

Would they have a right to rebel, or should they be prepared to see their children's education suffer for the sake of social cohesion? The answer is that they would have every right to rebel. There is nothing selfish in the desire of a parent to see their children do well in school, or in resistance by parents to anything that would harm the education of their children.

There is, however, something extremely paternalistic about the attitude of those who would set up an educational system that disregards the wishes of parents in the interests of integration and social cohesion as they see it.

Parents are the primary educators of their children and schools have to respond first and foremost to their wishes, and especially to the wish for schools that have a minimum standard of education and an ethos that is to their liking.

Schools also have a role in fostering social cohesion, but it is a secondary one. Their primary role, to repeat, is to educate children in accordance with the wishes of parents.

The real question that needs to be asked in this debate over our schools isn't whether the Church or the State should determine their future, but whether parents or the State should do so. Fundamentally, a State-determined education system takes away from parents the right to judge what school is best for their children.