Right Reverend Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, said members of religious minorities have always had difficulty having education requirements met.
Discussion around control of 92% of the country’s 3,300 primary schools by Catholic bishops has been heightened in the past year and they are in talks with the Department of Education about the possible handover of schools to other patrons in areas of declining demand for Catholic education.
Bishop Colton said the immediate problem is an education system with too few patrons for an increasingly diverse society, but the biggest challenge is how to accommodate the new plurality as well as the existing school communities with a constitutional emphasis on parental choice.
“Until now, the majority religious community in Ireland, understandably because of its size, hasn’t had to give much consideration to the position of minorities,” he told a seminar held by the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights at University College Cork’s law faculty.
He said the strong and reasonable claims for other schooling options by non-religious people is new, but the way other religious minorities have been accommodated is not.
“It has always been the case that minority faith groups haven’t been adequately accommodated in the system. That’s not acceptable but the outcry is only coming now,” said Bishop Colton, who is patron to more than 20 schools in his diocese.
The Church of Ireland is patron to around 6% of primary schools with the remaining 2% comprising Jewish, Muslim and interdenominational schools, and rising numbers of multidenominational schools catering for children of all faiths and none.
Rather than a complete overhaul of the system, Bishop Colton suggested moving towards greater diversification of patronage models, rather than the unsatisfactory existing system.
He stressed that, despite the loss of credibility of all churches and other institutions in recent years and responses to the Murphy report and other revelations, there is still strong religious affiliation in Ireland.
Bishop Colton said he doubts it is possible to attain a universal secular education system, espoused by another speaker, Eoin Daly of UCC’s law department.
As an example, he referred to how religious practices and symbols have appeared in state-run hospitals and other institutions assumed to be neutral.