Educate Together in Ballina – 27th June 2003

Educate Together welcomes Fr. Brendan’s interest in the prudent use of taxpayers money in education and would join him in encouraging public debate on these issues. From the outset it is important to point out that the Irish primary system of education is a privately owned, publicly funded system. Whilst this structure has served the country well in the past, it is proving increasingly inflexible in today’s world. It is now seriously out of balance with social trends and is in drastic need of structural reform.

Spare a thought for the figures released last week from the 2002 census. They provide powerful evidence of the irreversible trend towards ethical and social diversity in Ireland. The figures provide more detail of religious and ethical diversity than ever before measured and show dramatic increases in all headings of minority opinion. Looking back at previous figures we can have no doubt that we are not only dealing with a population and economy that is at last beginning to grow towards its real potential but also a society that is being enriched and diversifying.

However, if we look at our education system, we see an overwhelming state supported private monopoly of religious schools. 99% of all primary schools are operated under patronage that promotes a particular religious attitude. Only a tiny handlful are owned by the state. In this part of the country, there is no choice for parents but to send their children to a school that is legally bound to uphold either a catholic or protestant ethos. Look at the census again, in Mayo over 5% of the population no longer consider themselves to be Catholic or Church of Ireland.

In all honesty, in a school system that claims to be child-centred and democratic is it appropriate that children have to absent themselves from part of the school day as a result of their parents ethical preference? Obviously this increasing diversity presents major challenges to the rights agenda in our society and has resource implications. Our constitution guarantees that the state cannot compel a family to send their children to a school that conflicts their conscience and lawful preference, yet at such a time of social change, there is not a single multi-denominational school in Mayo, Roscommon, Longford or Leitrim.

The proposal to open an Educate Together school in Ballina is a modest attempt to make a choice available to parents in the area that is becoming increasingly available all over the country. It aims to complement and not compete with existing provision. Fr. Brendan is mistaken in suggesting that there is lack of openness about our objectives or that there could be compulsion involved in making the school viable. The proposal for the school was recommended by the New Schools Advisory Committee. This is an independent expert body chaired by none other Sr. Eilleen Randles the former General Secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, it also includes a past President of the INTO and the current Director of the National Parent’s Council. It was this independent body that recommended that the Minister to approve the application.

In Fr. Brendan’s plain English, the school will operate under a legal charter that obliges the board to respect and cherish the identity of all children irrespective of their social, cultural and religious background. This charter defines the school’s ethos and is legally enforceable. As a result, the school is prohibited from preferring any particular religious viewpoint. In the space allocated to doctrinal instruction in a religious school, the school delivers a comprehensive programme of teaching about religious faith and ethics which covers the main faith systems in the world and promotes respect for human rights, civic responsibility and the environment. At the same time, the school facilitates any group of parents who so wish, to run doctrinal instruction classes outside school hours as a voluntary ‘opt-in’ programme. The advantage in this model is that no child is ever made to feel an outsider during the school day and no teacher is ever placed in a situation in which they have to teach as truth a viewpoint that they may not hold themselves.

One of the fascinating statistics from Educate Together schools in other parts of the country is the significant number of families of the majority faith who prefer this model for their children and run First Communion and Confirmation classes after school. They consider that it is right that the responsibility for faith formation is in home and church and that their children will benefit from a school environment in which difference of view is seen as an educational resource. They feel that such a school ethos is a good preparation for their children who are growing up into a world that is radically more diverse than the one in which they themselves went to school.

In conclusion, we are surprised at Fr. Brendan’s view that a school that voluntarily places itself under a legal charter of equality and inclusivity will lead to exclusiveness. We hope that in time, the Ballina Educate Together National School will be seen a natural and welcome addition to education choice in the area.