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Calls for Citizens’ Assembly to recommend school patronage reforms

By Cian Molloy - 02 June, 2018

"Catholic schools are most welcoming of people of different faiths. This is not a reason for maintaining patronage of most of the primary schools in the country, when more and more people want something else." – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin
(Pic John McElroy).

There are growing calls for the Citizens’ Assembly to make recommendations on how politicians should tackle the controversies surrounding the links between the Catholic Church and the Irish school system.

As Ireland becomes increasingly multicultural, there are many who object to the fact that 90 per cent of Irish schools have a distinctly Catholic ethos. According to the last census, the percentage of the Irish population identifying as Catholic is less than 80 per cent, and that percentage is expected to decrease further.

Already, a new law to ban the “baptism barrier” is passing through the Oireachtas. If enacted, it would mean that Catholic schools would be unable to give priority enrolment to members of the Catholic Church.

At present, many Catholic schools have enrolment policies that prioritise in the following order: Catholic children living in the parish; Catholic children who live outside the parish and who do not have a Catholic school in their parish; all children who live within the parish boundaries but are not Catholic.

“This is an issue about a lack of school places, it is not about religion,” said Seamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Managers Association. “We have always made clear that Catholic schools want to accept everybody who applies. When we have space, we literally do take everybody who applies.”

However, even when there are spaces available in Catholic schools, there are difficulties for some families. If parents do not want their children to attend religious instruction, what is a school or a teacher to do with those children while the rest of the pupils are busy with religious instruction or visiting their parish church?

Left-wing politicians, such as Senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin of the Labour Party and TD Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit, called this week for the matter to be formally discussed by the Citizens’ Assembly.

Separately, the Department of Education and Science is consulting parents in 16 areas across the country about whether they would like their schools to have a “multi-denominational patron” instead of a Catholic bishop as patron. The surveys are taking place in: parts of Dublin 1; Skerries, Co. Dublin; Bray, Co. Wicklow; Athlone, Co. Westmeath; Tullow, Co. Carlow; Kinsale, Co. Cork; Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington, Co. Meath; Athenry, Co. Galway; Kenmare and Sneem, Co. Kerry; Claremorris, Co. Mayo; Ballybofey and Stranorlar, Co. Donegal; Ennis, Co. Clare; Roscrea, Co. Tipperary; Waterford City; Carrickmacross in Co. Monaghan; and Edenderry, Co. Offaly.

Because of Ireland’s history and the major role the Church and its religious orders have played in educating the Catholic poor, Ireland developed an education system unlike any other in Europe. The majority of Irish schools are Church-owned but state-funded. In most other European countries, faith formation is done outside of schools.

In the past, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has been the most outspoken member of the Church hierarchy on the subject of Church patronage of schools and the demands of modern-day multicultural Ireland.

Delivering the St Killian’s Day Lecture in Wurzburg in July last year, the Archbishop said: “Preparation for First Communion and Confirmation [in Ireland] is carried out primarily in the schools. There is a stubborn reluctance within the Church to allow that situation to change.

“The Irish religious education establishment is fixated on questions of ownership and management and too little on the purpose of the Catholic school and the outcomes of Catholic education in terms of faith formation. It is stressed that Catholic schools are most welcoming of people of different faiths and of social background and of educational disability. That is indeed true. This is not, however, a reason for maintaining patronage of most of the primary schools in the country, when more and more people want something else,” Archbishop Martin said.

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