Church should stand its ground on school patronage
When I was in boarding school a significant figure was invited to address the students. As it happened we weren’t too interested in what he had to say and after speaking for what seemed like an inordinate period of time a gradual hum of conversation emanated from the student body.
After the formalities were over and our guest took his leave we were asked by the school principal to remain behind. He waded into us on the disrespect we had shown ‘a guest of the college’, how insulting our behaviour was, how we had let ourselves and the college down and how a letter of apology would have to be composed and signed by every student in the hall. To say that the principal was annoyed would be underestimating the situation. He was apoplectic with rage.
When I saw teachers give the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, a flotilla of red cards I thought of our old school principal. How times have changed. What I wonder would the same teachers say if their own students had shown a guest of their school (or even themselves) a red card?
At the very least the ungracious behaviour of albeit a minority of teachers calls into question the wisdom of an embarrassed Minister for Education running around the country delivering formal set-piece speeches with teachers reacting in predictably ungracious fashion – an exercise about as instructive as ringing the bell three times in one week for Pavlov’s dog. It is difficult to see what purpose the whole exercise serves, apart from offering easy copy for media in a holiday week.
Such annual conferences may be necessary for unions and associations to do their business but what appears in the media is effectively a sound-byte that creates more heat than light. What is needed in Irish education is stringent analysis of problems (and pseudo-problems) rather than playing to the populist agenda of the latest public gallery.
The report published by the Department of Education on school patronage is a case in point. Parents in 306 Catholic schools were surveyed and the result is a recommendation for change in 28 (that’s 9%) of those schools – not a very significant figure. Yet the results of this survey have been embellished and exaggerated by groups with particular agendas agitating for change.
For instance, as Fr Michael Drumm has pointed out in an opinion piece in The Irish Times, the suggestion that two-thirds of parents want a change in the management of school – hyped continually in the media by those in favour of change – is simply false.
Reading some of the commentary in the press, you’d imagine that the vast majority of parents are anxious to send their children to schools without Catholic patronage when in fact the clear result is that a very large number of parents want to have their children educated in Catholic schools. And another clear result is that the vast majority of parents have no interest in changing the management structure of the schools their children attend.
The detail of the survey is instructive. One of the 23 areas mooted for a school not under Catholic patronage is Ballina. Parents in 16 schools with a total roll-call of 1,954 pupils in the Ballina area were surveyed. The parents of 44 children said that they will avail of an English-language multidenominational school if such was avaliable to them. That’s 2.2% of the total number of pupils.
So what’s going to happen to facilitate just over 2% of the pupils in the greater Ballina area? Will 2% have to be facilitated even if the 98% aren’t interested in any change and even if the fall-out from the inevitable displacement that will occur disrupts or even damages individual schools – for example, in terms of teacher numbers? And what school building by what parish will be handed over to facilitate at most 2% of pupils of the greater Ballina area? And who will compensate that parish for the loss of possibly a significant and lucrative property?
When an interviewer on RTE Radio’s Morning Ireland asked Ruairí Quinn how the Catholic Church would react, his trite comment was that the whole issue was originally raised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, so he expected that the Church would cooperate. It was a naive response which showed that he was unacquainted with the niceties of church geography and jurisdiction.
The Archbishop of Dublin may be punching above his weight at a national level but the reality is that while he can make decisions about signing over schools in Dublin he has absolutely no jurisdiction over the rest of the country. Anyone presuming otherwise has little knowledge of Irish church history. (In 1837, at a defamation trial in Sligo the PP of Kilmore Erris, John Patrick Lyons, told the court that he was not bound by the opinion of the Archbishops of Armagh and Tuam because, as a priest of the diocese of Killala, neither had jurisdiction over him.)
The underlining wisdom in government circles seems to be that the Catholic Church is going to roll over on this issue. The wisdom is that the Church is now so weakened, so lacking in public support, so wounded from its self-inflicted wounds that it won’t chance any more public odium. And that wisdom is being cheer-led by those with particular agendas.
There are three things awry with that belief. One is that the vast majority of parents don’t want any change in the management of their schools; two is that no parish will easily offer a building to facilitate the State’s responsibility to provide schools for those who don’t want to be in Catholic schools; and three is that what might work in Dublin may not work in Mayo.
Maybe this is the issue that the Church needs to find its voice on again. Maybe we need, like that teacher’s union, to take out a few red cards and point them at the Minister for Education and those who presume that the Catholic Church can be taken for granted – yet again. My former school principal might turn in his grave at the prospect but there comes a point at which the Catholic Church needs to stand its ground.