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Educate Together Blog

'It doesn’t matter what you call it, what’s important is what it means.' - Interview with Rody Ryan

Rody Ryan, founder member of Educate Together, former Chairperson of North Dublin National School Project and the originator of the Educate Together Charter.

'In the early 1980s, our children were young – my daughter was two. We were living in East Wall on the north side of Dublin and we were looking at the schools in the area to see what choices were available. We found - typically enough for Ireland at that time – that all the choices were for a Catholic school or a Protestant school; a boys’ school or a girls’ school – all of these choices breaking down into little subgroups. We were very clear that we would like to have an educational environment for our children that would be inclusive and expose them to the full range of what they would go on to encounter in life.

We had heard of the Dalkey School Project and we contacted Michael Johnson, Aine Hyland and a number of other leaders. The first thing they said was to organise a meeting of the parents – and I learned a valuable lesson when we did so.  If you organize a meeting of people in your front room, and they decide to elect a committee, the first thing they ask is who is going to be the Chairperson. If it’s your room and you’ve organized it, you’re going to be the Chairperson!’ I discovered myself to be the Chairperson of an entity that subsequently got known as the North Dublin National School Project.

We set ourselves up as a steering committee and wrote ourselves a constitution. We got brochures printed and we began organizing public meetings. After the first public meeting our number of supporters went from 20 to 80. We made a point of spreading our contacts in the political domain at election time and asked them to declare their support for the principles on which we were founded. We built our base and expanded it.

The next step was to start collecting the names of the children who would come to the school and there came a point when we had to approach the Department of Education. We wrote to them and they were very polite and very accepting but also very direct. They had already experienced positive interaction with the Bray and the Dalkey School Projects and didn’t have the same sense of concern that they might have experienced otherwise. They told us what the rules were. They told us what their expectations were. The Department asked where the school was going to be. We said it would be wherever we could establish it. They said ‘that’s grand, go and find a site and come back to us when you have it. Bye bye for now!’

We had a lot of evidence to support what we were about. We could point to a large number of surveys that showed that, even in the early ‘80s, young parents in different parts of the country would prefer a school that reflected the whole community. It was very well established in surveys but was not reflected in the education system itself. The Department were cautious. They needed to know that we were a group of people that could run a school.

Our school began to take shape when we found the Model School in Glasnevin that was going to be disused within a few months. We went back into the Department and told them we had found a school. They asked who owned it and we said ‘you do!’ It was leased to us at a very token level. From that point on, our school became a reality and it opened in September 1984.

Around the same time we established a committee with Dalkey and Bray to co-ordinate the future of this emerging sector. We had to find a name and the name was Educate Together. I was the third chairperson. Mary O’Rourke, the Minister for Education, arranged for Educate Together to formally interact with the Department of Education on behalf of this emerging sector. With nine schools in the system we were no longer applicants seeking favours from the establishment. We went on to become a representative body on the same statutory or functional footing as any of the other denominational bodies, asserting our interests and requesting a response from the State.

At the time I was working in Brussels every few months. I got in touch with a number of people, particularly L'association Européenne des Parents d'Élèves who were interested in the same principles as we were. In Ireland we were perceived to some degree as being marginal but in the European context, it was the Irish education system that was considered extremely marginal. I was invited to the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in Paris where they launched a charter to articulate their support for public education. I took the headings of their charter and applied them to Educate Together – “Recalling” certain principles and “Recognising” certain realities, we “Assert” certain rights and “Commit ourselves” to certain actions - and especially to promoting “a future where multidenominational education would be as freely available to parents as any other educational option they may choose”. In 1990, we launched the Educate Together Charter at our Annual General Meeting in Galway, with Mary O’Rourke, the Minister for Education at the time, endorsing the contents of the document point-by-point.

All Educate Together schools are based on this Charter that outlines their commitment to multidenominational education – where children of all social, cultural and religious backgrounds are equally respected. There was always a linguistic debate as to whether we are multidenominational or nondenominational. Michael Johnson said to me a long time ago It doesn’t matter what you call it, what’s important is what it means”. Call it nondenominational, multidenominational, ethical education – whatever you want. I don’t actually distinguish very clearly between those terms. But what it means is that children of all social, cultural and religious backgrounds are equally respected. And that’s what really matters.

I’ve always thought that Educate Together schools were a necessity. Anything that contributes to the sense that we have a planet to share and we have a continent to share and we have an island to share and we have a city to share – these all make for a higher quality of life. I think that requirement and that need is true of Ireland and of the world. We need to ensure that our children grow up in a world in which they can engage with other people without having the shutters down, without having the sense of there being something wrong with them because they’re not like us or that there’s something wrong with us because we’re not like them. We, as a species, need to consciously let go of those feelings. We need to embrace difference and celebrate principles of tolerance and mutual respect.'

 

Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816