General Members Meeting – November 12th 2005

At a vibrant, well-attended meeting in the award-winning Educate Together school in Ranelagh, delegates from the 39 Educate Together schools met to discuss national policy. The meeting heard reports on the negotiating success of the movement, the development of its services to new schools, its training programmes, its fundraising policy and the start of an in-service training programme for the Learn Together ethical education programme. A central element of the meeting was an extensive debate on the lobbying programme recently launched by the organisation.

Commentary on Church and State

Towering over the discussions was the significance of recent commentary by politicians on the relationship between Church and State and the long-term consequences of the current overwhelming dominance of privately-owned and religiously controlled primary schools.

The fact that 98% of all National Schools in Ireland are legally obliged to uphold the ethos of a particular religious patron was seen as a major flaw in the structure of Irish education in the 21st century. Speakers drew attention to serious human rights issues being caused by the lack of choice for Irish families. The importance of Educate Together’s successful case to the United Nations on this issue was emphasised.

Partnership Approach

Speaker after speaker reacted strongly to recent comments by politicians, pointing out that although almost all commentators recognised the difficulties posed, the government was doing little to address the problem. Many delegates pointed out that all patron bodies recognised the difficulties and were working in partnership to address them. It is against the principles of all patron bodies to compel families to choose religious schools against their conscience. Educate Together is working with both Catholic ad Protestant patron bodies to provide a balanced choice for parents in as many areas as possible.

Escalating Demand for Places in Educate Together schools

The meeting heard detailed reports on the escalating demand for new Educate Together schools, the extensive waiting lists for places in such schools and the growing difficulties being faced by the organisation in meeting this demand. Others pointed out the reality of the demographic changes in Ireland, the strong trend amongst new Irish parents to seek multi-denominational education, the need to welcome increasing numbers of immigrants with diverse religious backgrounds and chronic failure of the State to provide educational infrastructure in new housing estates.

Call for Government Responsibility and Action

In a hard-hitting address to the forum, Educate Together’s CEO Paul Rowe, outlined the serious damage due to be caused to the organisation by the continued failure of the Department of Education and Science to respond to recent funding proposals. Alerting the membership to the consequences of losing experienced staff in the new year and the length of time that it would take to train any replacements, he called for the organisation to redouble its efforts to persuade the government to act sensibly in this matter.

“There are great difficulties involved in changing the structure of Irish education. However, we must be clear that the State has the prime responsibility for the current situation and the State must act to resolve it. We are a movement that is based on supporting the human, educational and intellectual rights of families and children.

We oppose any attempt to remove the right of Irish families to choose denominational education. The denial of human and Constitutional rights that continues to take place is caused by the failure of the State to provide any alternative to religious schools in 98% of areas in the country.

If we are serious about human rights, we have to address this lack of choice and build a national network of schools operating with democratic, secular management that delivers multi-denominational education.

This government has the solution here ready and waiting, committed to working in partnership with other providers and with a proven track record of accountability, transparency, quality of delivery and hard work. It is utterly unacceptable that the Government is knowingly denying the funds that are necessary for Educate Together to meet the demands of Irish families in many areas of the country.

The meeting concluded with a range of decisions taken to intensify lobbying and campaigning work in the run up to the Budget and in preparation for the next General Election. In particular, it decided to send a deputation from the National Forum to the Dail on Tuesday 15th November 6:00pm.