Worsening Prospects for Rights and Diversity

For opinions column.

Department of Education and Science to restrict the development of diversity in Irish education.

Whilst the Minister’s commitment to transparency in publishing the various lists is greatly to be welcomed, the list highlights once again the abject failure of the state to provide for the basic accommodation requirements of Irish schoolchildren. It is unacceptable that the government utters the excuse of failing state finances as a justification for this situation. This is an investment for which there is a guaranteed return and should not be regarded as a cost.

It is staggering that of the 819 schools mentioned in the various primary lists the overwhelming majority are schools under private ownership. Cursory examination reveals that less than 20 of the schools mentioned are publicly owned. Is it wise for the state to continue to invest vast sums to renovate or build schools that are privately owned? Does the state have any certainty that such investment can be recouped when such buildings are disposed by their owners?

Of the 3,200 national schools 99% are privately owned religious schools.This presents a huge challenge in a society in which social and religious attitudes are rapidly changing.

The list for large primary projects that will be authorised to proceed in 2003 does not contain a single Educate Together school in the total of 12 and the list for projects at advanced stages of architectural planning has no Educate Together school out of a total of 122.

In the past five years, only four of the 35 new schools have been denominational schools. The rest have been gaelscoileanna (17) and Educate Together schools (12) with one Muslim and one other. This is an accelerating trend, in 2002 of the 10 new schools, 7 were from Educate Together and 3 Gaelscoileanna.

If the system was indeed operating even in an equal manner, there would be a noticeable increase in the percentage of Educate Together schools in each list as the lists moved from completion all the way down to early architectural planning. The opposite is the case, and in addition, the Department is insisting on completely unrealistic and unattainable terms of locally sourced temporary accommodation. Instead of planning to address diversity, the Department is returning to a policy of restricting the growth of the multi-denominational alternative. If this attitude continues, it will create massive legal and financial problems for the government. It is very unclear that the courts will allow the state to compel parents to send their children to schools that a legally obliged to uphold a religious ethos that conflicts their conscience.

The most telling feature of the list published by the Minister yesterday is the contrast between the number of projects in architectural planning and those actually being worked upon. There are 411 in planning, and 189 ‘after planning’ but 92 of these are actually completed. In effect the number of live projects is only 97. Most parents would have a solution. None of us would consider renting our houses for 10 years and then pay the market price that had steadily inflated over the period. We take out a mortgage and reap the benefit as inflation eats its way into the real value of our repayments. Maybe the Government should do the same?