Over half a million children — 544,696 — are expected in primary schools over the coming days. In Kerry, 14 of those will make a small but important piece of history tomorrow. Their school will be one of three rural schools to transfer from Catholic patronage.
Scoil an Ghleanna, a Gaeltacht school overlooking Sceilg Mhichíl, reopens as a State-run Community National School (CNS) under the auspices of the Kerry Education and Training Board. That change is designed to secure the school’s future. One third of Scoil an Ghleanna pupils are not Catholic so the change is driven by pragmatism, demographics and a determination to survive rather than secularism.
Lecarrow School in Roscommon, and Kerry’s Tahilla National School — both with eight pupils — also reopen under the CNS umbrella. The schools will offer a multi-belief and values programme rather than an exclusively Catholic one.
Preparation for Catholic sacraments will take place outside school hours. Scoil an Ghleanna parish priest Fr Patsy Lynch welcomed this as he hopes it will encourage parents to be more active in religious education. Time will tell.
Education and Training Boards Ireland reports that 10 primary schools open for the first time, or reopen, this autumn under CNS management. Those minor but significant developments echo the continuing growth in Educate Together (ET) schools.
The equality-based NGO will open seven new national schools, four new second-level schools and one newly divested national school over the coming days. This brings the number of ET national schools to 91 and second-level schools to 17. ET offers school places to 30,000 of the 915,000 or so school-going children in Ireland.
These figures, though hardly 4% of the school-going population, reflect a trend identified in a Department of Education report late last year. It found that enrolment in multidenominational primary or post-primary schools in September 2018 rose by 3.6% while Catholic school pupil numbers increased by just 0.4%.
This swing reflects a general move away from institutions and processes unquestioning and unquestionably Catholic — though not as dramatically as changes around marriage. The CSO recorded 21,053 marriages in 2018 but only 10,027 — 47.6% — were marked by a Catholic ceremony.
It also seems significant that the Catholic Diocese of Kerry, like so many others, struggles to place a priest in every parish. Six Kerry parishes do not have a resident priest and only six priests in the diocese are under 50.
This week’s admonishment of the Catholic Church’s national seminary at Maynooth by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, suggests there is no medium-term likelihood of that changing. He said St Patrick’s needs radical reform. “The seminary and university are still trapped in an old vision. It’s going to be quite different, I hope,” he said.
These trends, and smaller than expected crowds at last year’s papal visit, point in an undeniable direction. They also suggest that the changes in school patronage must accelerate dramatically to reflect a changed, more diverse Ireland. A realistic openness must replace inertia and stonewalling.