This follows a survey in the Irish Catholic newspaper which found that almost three-quarters of priests believe they should not have management responsibilities in schools.
At least 95% of the country’s 3,300 primary schools are of Catholic denomination, under the patronage of the local bishop. But, whereas the local priest was traditionally the chair of the local national school board, more and more lay people have begun taking up the position in the past two decades.
Fr Dan O’Connor, general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Managers Association (CPSMA), said the boards of at least three-quarters of schools in dioceses such as Cork and Ross, Tuam and Dublin have a non-clerical chairperson. “A proposal was first put forward in Cork and Ross in 1986 that the priest would no longer chair school boards to free up more time for pastoral work,” he said.
Fr O’Connor said he was surprised, however, at the number of schools which had a lay chairperson after last year’s board of management elections. It was interesting, he said, that most of these chairpersons were women.
Although the CPSMA does not keep records of the figures, Fr O’Connor said a sizeable number of school boards no longer have a priest among its members. However, all Catholic schools must include two nominees of the patron bishop, which often includes a member of the parish council.
National Parents Council (Primary) chief executive Fionnuala Kilfeather said it was a sign of the times that priests were relinquishing their roles on school boards.
“The most important thing is that whoever chairs the board, whether it’s a lay person or a priest, has the interest, knowledge, skill and time for the job,” she said.
“Board membership is voluntary but there are increasing demands because of recent legislation and requirements for various policies in schools, and the Department of Education needs to provide greater supports to boards,” Ms Kilfeather said.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) said its members would not be surprised by the findings of the survey on priests’ attitudes to school management. “Time constraints caused by the smaller number of priests may be a contributory factor in many priests reducing their involvement in schools and stating a wish to opt out of school management at local level,” said INTO general secretary John Carr.
School management should rest with lay people, according to the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh.
Responding to the Irish Catholic survey, he said the function of the priest should be in giving spiritual guidance rather than being on boards of management.
“It is not a role priests are particularly equipped for while lots of lay people have management experience,” said Dr Walsh.