“We must educate our politicians as to the contribution that our Catholic schools are making to their constituencies and, above all, we must make it clear that broad sweeping statements about Catholic schools have local implications”, according to Father Tom Deenihan who spoke today at the Annual General Meeting of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association in Dublin.
Father Deenihan, who is general secretary of the CPSMA, delivered his wide-ranging address to more than two hundred Catholic primary school management representatives drawn from around the country. Father Deenihan highlighted the imbalance in the education debate over the last five years and saying that it has presented a “critical and negative analysis of the purpose and role of Catholic education in Ireland”. He suggested that public discourse has solely focused on divesting, baptism certificates, Rule 68, inclusion, and what has been described as “Church control and more recently indoctrination”, to the detriment of valuing the contribution by thousands of people who are involved in voluntary boards of management and school staff, all of whom effectively run quality Catholic schools.
Father Deenihan added that the 23,000 people who serve on a voluntary basis on the boards of Catholic primary schools throughout the country are tired of bearing the brunt of criticism from our politicians who target such schools so regularly that one could be forgiven for thinking that there was no other issue in Irish society, be it economical, health, justice or welfare. Indeed, despite that narrative over the past few years, it was remarkable how little it featured in political manifestos, leader debates and, anecdotally, on the doorsteps with canvassers.
Other than a brief comment on inclusion in relation to Catholic Schools Week, Father Deenihan said that he deliberately refrained from comment on these matters over the past few weeks as he did not wish to politicise CPSMA in the context of the General Election campaign. Over the next few weeks, Father Deenihan said, various parties and individuals will be having discussions on a new ‘Programme for Government’ in order to underpin public policy priorities over the next five years. There is no doubt that education will form a significant part of those discussions. He said that he was sure that no politician will give the figures on inclusion that he outlined or will acknowledge the contribution that Catholic schools are making to Irish society today. By all means, he added, highlight what is deficient. That does us all a service but balance and fairness demands that what is being done well is acknowledged. Which of our politicians seeking election today, Father Deenihan asked, has come out in favour of the good that Catholic schools have done over the past few years? It is time to stop making broad statements about Catholic schools. Catholic schools are the schools in our parishes that are working hard, are sought after, appreciated and serve the community well.
According to Father Deenihan, politicians should be invited by school boards “to see at first hand the work that is being done, the dedication of the teachers, the commitment of board members, to review the results of the Department of Education’s own inspections and the inclusive and happy nature of these schools.”
Father Deenihan also highlighted the importance for prospective teachers in faith schools to hold a religious education diploma from a recognised college as “our students grow in allegiance to Christ through, amongst other things, the witness of and interaction with the teacher.”
Father Deenihan encouraged boards of management and their members to contribute to the current consultation which is being undertaken by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment regarding the Education about Religion, Beliefs and Ethics.
Father Deenihan urged delegates to rejoice in the works of mercy that go on in all our schools every day, and to proclaim that work and contribution boldly. Father Deenihan reminded delegates that in paragraph 109 of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis states that “Challenges exist to be overcome! Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled commitment”. Therein lies the challenge, he said, for all involved in Catholic education.
Let us be realists, let us be joyful but let us be bold and committed in working for and defending our Catholic Schools, the work they do and the contribution that they make to church and society.
· Father Tom Deenihan is a priest of the Diocese of Cork & Ross. Please see below the full address.
· The CPSMA is a recognised school management association and represents all the boards of management of the over 2,900 Catholic primary schools in the Republic of Ireland.
Address by General Secretary Father Tom Deenihan to the Annual General Meeting of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association
I think it is true to say that the past five years have witnessed a growing scrutiny and a more critical and negative analysis of the purpose and role of Catholic education in Ireland. Public and, indeed, political debate has focused on such issues as divesting, baptism certificates, Rule 68, inclusion and, even, Church Control and, more recently, indoctrination. The result of this unbalanced debate is that any neutral observer could only come to the conclusion that Catholic schools are a malign influence on Irish society.
The phenomenon is not uniquely Irish. In the United Kingdom, a similar situation is developing regarding faith schools. Many secularists and humanists are increasingly speaking out against faith schools. Recently, a chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, told the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges of “an increasingly secular and materialistic society, where young people can so easily have their heads turned and lose sight of what really matters”. “We are also living through an era marked by seemingly ever greater intolerance of other people’s beliefs, views and ways of living”, Sir Michael added. “Therefore, it has never been more important for Christians to stand up for their faith and for the gospel values of love, compassion and tolerance”. The situation that he describes is quite familiar to us who are involved in the management of Catholic primary schools in Ireland.
As the general secretary of the country’s largest school management body, I find myself thinking of the almost five thousand eight hundred parents who serve on our boards of management, that same number who, from various parishes, represent the local bishop as patron, that other five thousand eight hundred community representatives who serve on their local boards, the two thousand nine hundred principals and the two thousand nine hundred teachers who serve on their boards on a voluntary basis and I wonder what that twenty three thousand two hundred make of it all? Indeed, today, of all days, I know that many of our politicians would love to have the support of a fraction of that number. Indeed, that number would have loved to have had the support of some of our politicians over the past few years! Such are the swings and roundabouts of a functioning democracy!
I must also mention the dedicated teachers who work in those schools, who are committed to the ethos of those schools and who provide not just an education but often a place of security, safety and structure for many of our children who attend our schools. The public debate and perception of Catholic primary schools is simply not reflective of the reality. In many ways, the debate on Catholic primary schools has focussed more on ideology than on reality. While political debate in Ireland over the past five years has focussed very much on Catholic schools and primary schools at that, how many politicians can you remember being quoted during that time as acknowledging the contributions that such schools make throughout the country at a local and, particularly, at a national level?
Much has been made of the “control” – and I use this term advisably – of the Catholic Church over the primary education system in this country. Since the 1998 Education Act, the Church patrons or trustees of denominational primary schools have had the least representation on the boards of their schools compared to Patron’s representation on the boards of schools in other sectors within the education system. That factor is conveniently but consistently ignored and overlooked particularly in the context of ‘Church control’ of education!
In community schools and in schools and colleges under the patronage of the ETB, the trustees have six of twelve board members, in voluntary secondary schools, the trustees have four of eight nominees. In Catholic primary schools, the Patron has two of eight nominees. The quid pro quo for this generous and significant gesture by the bishops as patrons was an undertaking by the Department that a Deed of Variation would be signed, guaranteeing the ethos of these schools. That was in 1997, before the 1998 Act itself. In 2013, at this AGM, when I raised the matter during a question and answer session with the then minister, Ruairí Quinn, an undertaking was given here that the issue would be resolved within twelve months and certainly before the 2014 AGM. We are now at the 2016 AGM, some 19 years after the original undertaking and the deed is still not signed. In the meantime, new boards have been constituted again with the reduced representation. In addition, initiatives that could impinge upon ethos have been introduced. The Deed of Variation is of significance here as the Education Act can be amended.
In the recent past too, a narrative has been created that seems to imply that you must be baptised to gain entry to a Catholic primary school. That is simply false. Nearly every primary school in the country has students enrolled who are not Roman Catholic and who do not receive the Sacraments. There are, I believe, between eleven and seventeen schools in Dublin which are over-subscribed. This means that more people wish to enrol their children than there are places available. That, in itself, is indicative of something. There is, though, an opportunity here for such schools to cater for the children in their area before catering for those outside the catchment area, regardless of religious affiliation. That is a conversation that will have to take place in the near future and it may be an area where some gesture could be made.
I have, previously, at annual general meetings, at the Launch of Catholic Schools Week and elsewhere, stressed that inclusion cannot be reduced to the single issue of religion. Inclusion must also take nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic background and ability into consideration. When these five criteria are taken into consideration, I would challenge anyone to tell me that Catholic Primary Schools are not as inclusive as any other type of school. Indeed, an ESRI publication on School Sector Variation Among Primary Schools in Ireland and available on the ESRI website bears adequate and independent testimony to this. Father Michael Drumm and the Catholic Schools Partnership referenced this study in their own publication, Catholic Primary Schools in a Changing Ireland when they quoted that non-Catholic primary schools have a higher percentage of students from the professional, managerial and technical backgrounds and that 80% of parents from the top incomes send their children to these schools. Children in Catholic schools come from just 20% of the top income families. The report found also that the numbers of children with disabilities and learning difficulties enrolled in Catholic schools were significantly higher than in other school types. The report also indicated that “most multi-denominational schools did not have any Traveller pupils. Catholic schools were more likely to have greater numbers of Traveller pupils compared to minority faith schools.” The reason that I cite these figures is to illustrate that Catholic schools are inclusive, and, inclusion is about much more than religion.
In my report two years ago, I also referred to Saint Maries of the Isle Convent Primary school in the Cork city where there were 218 pupils on the roll book from 35 different countries belonging to 13 different religious denominations. The school then had 4 resource teachers and 8 Special Needs Assistants. The situation has not changed. Today, Saint Maries of the Isle NS has 265 pupils on the roll book of from 38 countries and from ten different faiths as well as atheist. In fact, 40 are Muslim, 11 are Hindu and 4 are Buddhist!
The school now has 3 special Autism Spectrum Disorder Classes which are attended by 18 pupils. It has a further 39 children availing of Resource Hours. It has 11 SNAs and 25 teachers including 3 EAL teachers. The Department conducted a WSE there before Christmas and sent a questionnaire to all parents. 100% were happy with the school. Who can say that this Catholic school is not inclusive? That vision of Mercy permeates the classrooms, the corridors, the staff room and the yard of that school. This school is not the exception. All our Catholic schools are dealing with students from diverse backgrounds, of varying abilities and different faiths and none.
It must be stressed that these schools are also linked to the local parish. In my report in 2014, I also cited the example of the new school in Ballygarvan Parish in County Cork. In Ballygarvan:
It became clear that a new school was required due to a significant population growth as a result of the city extending. The Department would build the school but would only give a limited lease to the Catholic Bishop in terms of a school under Catholic Patronage, despite the Diocese making some of the land available for the school. The local Community purchased the remaining land, in two transactions, from Cork County Council and a private individual at a cost of three hundred and sixty thousand euro. This is in addition to making a third parcel of land, owned by the parish, available for the school. This local Catholic Community is now repaying this loan from their contributions to the offertory collection on Sundays so that they can be assured of a Catholic school in their community. They also, as citizens, pay tax to the state. Communities still want a Catholic Primary Education for their Children. That is often overlooked or even ignored.
In two weeks time, I shall have the pleasure of officially opening an extension to Kealkil National School in West Cork. I served there as chair in the nineteen nineties. Since then, the school, which is one of eight Catholic schools in the Parish of Bantry, has acquired a sports field, a loan for which had been underwritten by the diocese and is now paid for by the local parish. A number of years ago, it built, and needed, an extension! It is part of the local parish, it serves the parish and requires the support of that same parish. Our schools are parish schools and sometimes that parish support, be it in terms of finance, property or community effort, is overlooked. The school itself would not survive outside that parish structure. The board there has recently extended the playground and built another three class room extension. As elsewhere, the devolved grant did not cover the costs but astute financial management and planning by the principal, chair and board over the years as well as considerable parochial support ensured an outcome that serves the parish, the community, the department and the pupils and their parents well. This is a Board of Management of a Catholic school in action. Others would seem to call it the Church’s control of education!
Other than a brief comment on inclusion in relation to Catholic Schools Week, I have deliberately refrained from comment on these matters over the past few weeks as I did not wish to politicise the CPSMA in the context of our general election campaign. The reason why I highlight these facts and statistics now is clear. Today, as you know, the country is having a general election. Over the next few weeks, various parties and individuals will be having discussions on a new ‘Programme for Government’ in order to underpin public policy priorities over the next five years. I have no doubt that education will form a significant part of those discussions. I am equally sure that no politician will give the figures that I have given or will acknowledge the contribution that Catholic schools are making to Irish society today. By all means, highlight what is deficient. That does us all a service but balance and fairness demands that what is being done well is acknowledged. Which of our politicians seeking election today has come out in favour of the good that Catholic schools are doing over the past few years? It is time to stop making broad statements about Catholic schools. Catholic schools are the schools in our parishes and communities that are working hard and well, are sought after, appreciated and serve the community well.
While statements have been made on Catholic primary schools, few, if any, politicians have publically criticised their own local school. The whole is nothing more than the sum of the parts! Perhaps an opportunity exists here for school boards to invite their local politicians to their schools to see first hand the work that is being done, the dedication of the teachers, the commitment of the board members, the results of the Department’s own inspections and the inclusive and happy nature of those schools. It is also true that local schools should contact their local politicians when they comment on such schools and ask them to justify these comments in the light of local experiences. It is easy to criticise a notional national concept, it is harder to reject local evidence.
Rule 68: Religion and Ethos
It is also true that the teaching of religious instruction is central to the ethos of a Catholic school. The Education Act grants sole responsibility for a schools ethos to the patron. The department officials are keen to point out that there is no suggestion to an amendment of the actual Education Act itself and that the change is necessary to reflect the fact that some schools now are not under religious patronage.
For Catholic schools, religious education is an important manifestation of the schools Catholic ethos. That ethos is decided and defined by the patron, whoever the patron may be, not the minister. In fact, as the circular letter points out and as the Education Act stipulates, a school’s ethos is the sole preserve of the patron. For schools under Catholic patronage, nothing changes with the abolition of Rule 68. The catechetical programme, Grow in Love, will continue to be taught to the amount of two and a half hours per week.
However, it is no harm to remind ourselves that the board has a role in relation to a school’s ethos. I think that there is a danger that we could become too caught up in the practicalities; the fabric, the enrolment, the personalities and forget about the intrinsic! A board should pay particular attention to activities within the school of relevance to the school’s ethos. These may include opening on holy days of obligation, religious iconography being present, Sacramental and religious celebrations and policies of various kinds.
The appointment of teachers and principals, while being delegated to selection boards, should also be undertaken in a manner which respects the schools ethos, both in terms of what is being sought and in how the process is conducted. In that regard, it must be remembered that our students grow in allegiance to Christ through, amongst other things, the witness of and interaction with their teacher. Teachers in Catholic schools must collaborate with the parish. Of course that presupposes a willingness on the part of the parish to interact with and support the teacher. However, selection boards must seek a personal commitment, a kindliness and a personal manner that can bear witness to Christ to those in their care. The selection board should always ask for the religious education diploma from a recognised college.
I conclusion, I believe that it is time that boards of management, with others, challenged the popular view that our Catholic schools are grim places of indoctrination which parents are being forced to send their children to against their will! We must educate our politicians as to the contribution that our Catholic schools are making to their constituencies and, above all, we must make it clear that broad, sweeping statements about Catholic schools have local implications. Educate our politicians! Invite our politicians to your schools, insist that they see the work that is being done and tell them that if they do not value the enterprise, don’t bother calling when the thirty-second Dáil is dissolved. Those who teach and work in Catholic schools and those who serve on their boards, not to mention those who contribute to them in so many other ways, are providing a service to our community. We are becoming tired of being the object of criticism for our politicians who target such schools so regularly that one could be forgiven for thinking that there was no other issue in Irish society, be it economical, health, justice or welfare. Indeed, despite that narrative over the past few years, it was remarkable how little it featured in political manifestos, leader debates and, anecdotally, on the doorsteps with canvasser’s during the general election campaign.
In this Year of Mercy and given the theme of our AGM this year, ‘Catholic Schools, challenged to proclaim God’s mercy’, let us rejoice in the works of mercy that goes on in all our schools daily and let us proclaim that work and contribution boldly. In paragraph 109 of Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, Apostolic Exhortation published in November 2013), Pope Francis states that “Challenges exist to be overcome! Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled commitment”. Therein lies the challenge for ourselves: let us be realists, let us be joyful but let us be bold and committed in working for and defending our Catholic schools, for the work they do and for the contribution that they make to Church and society.