On Wednesday the Department of Education will host the opening session of a forum on school patronage on foot of Education Minister Ruairí Quinn’s suggestion that up to 50% of the primary schools under the control of the Catholic Church should be transferred to other patrons.
The Catholic Church controls more than 90% of the country’s 3,000 primary schools.
In an opening salvo in what has the potential to become a very divisive and drawn out debate, Catholic bishops have criticised Mr Quinn’s 50% suggestion as being “very unhelpful” as it could be read as an indication that some people who wish to have their children educated in schools under Catholic control “will be forced into change against their will”. Promising to oppose this, the bishops say they will only consider a change of patronage “where there is demonstrable demand for such”.
The comments are contained in a formal submission made to Wednesday’s forum and is just one from four Catholic education groups. In one, Fr Michael Drumm of the Catholic School Partnership, said a transfer figure of 10% was more realistic.
This is in contrast to Mr Quinn’s position who, speaking at the launch of the forum two months ago, said he believed “we should be ambitious about what we wish to achieve in this area”, but insisted that he did not have rigid position on a figure of 50%. It is, however, unlikely that he imagined a figure of 10% or even of 20%.
This debate, though likely to be very different in scale and hopefully in tone, is along the old, inescapable faultline dividing this society.
Debates and referenda on abortion and divorce and, to a lesser degree, legislation decriminalising homosexuality or facilitating civil partnerships were part of that tortuous process.
At nearly every point, the traditional Catholic position was democratically over-ruled and less autocratic positions adopted. One land-mine subject remains unresolved — abortion — and every politician dreads the prospect of having to finalise the issue. It is an issue, however, that will not go away as European courts have ruled that our present position is untenable and insisted we must resolve it in the medium term.
Despite myriad warnings from those opposed to changes on divorce and other measures once thought the work of the devil, the skies did not fall in when our Constitution more accurately reflected the mores of the communities, all of them, it defines and protects.
As we try to remake this society, just as we try to remake the institutions and processes that define and safeguard it, maybe we should look at how we teach our children and ask a simple question: do our primary schools, in their present guise, teach our children to have the civic morality and courage needed to demand a fair, decent and honest society, one we can all be proud of? What does the evidence around us suggest?