Inclusive schools the way forward, writes Quinn

PRIMARY schools are where the foundations for a life of learning are laid for children.

The publication of a book edited by my friend and constituency colleague, the late Dr Garrett FitzGerald, gives us new insights into the establishment of those foundations, the national school education system in Ireland, in the 1820s. Schools were then becoming rooted in their communities. But issues of patronage and parental choice were very much alive at that time.

Today, the communities they serve have changed hugely since that time, never more so than the last 20 years. We now have a much more diverse population, with 12% of the pupils in Irish primary schools being of migrant origin. These children have been welcomed into our schools and have integrated well.

However, our education system also needs to adapt to ensure that there is respect for all the different traditions and religions from which pupils come.

In addition, many people’s views about the place of religion in society and in their own lives have undergone profound change. The patronage of our schools needs to reflect those changes and the choice of parents.

Dr FitzGerald’s book shows how indebted we are to the traditional patrons for their leadership in creating and sustaining a national network of primary schools, which have catered for generations of Irish children. More recently, newer patron bodies, such as Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta, and the Muslim community have provided greater diversity of choice.

However, 95% of Irish primary schools remain under Christian patronage, with the vast majority of these — 92% — being under the patronage of the Catholic Church. Parents are now demanding increased choice in the type of schools they send their children to.

In response to this, I established a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector in 2011 to look at this whole area. The forum consulted widely and made recommendations on how demand for different types of patronage could be met in areas where parents are asking for choice. Work on implementing these recommendations is under way and I have been very keen to ensure that the views of parents are given top priority.

However, I am also conscious that while providing a choice of schools may be practicable in urban areas; in many parts of the country geography and distance mean there is often only one school to serve the entire community. There are about 1,700 of these primary schools. This means that they need to cater for the full range of traditions, religions, and beliefs in the local communities which they serve.

One of the challenges for these schools is to strike the right balance to ensure that the religious beliefs of all children in the locality are respected.

Therefore, the forum also looked at promoting greater inclusiveness in all schools, ensuring that there is respect for the diversity of traditions and religions from which pupils now come. I recognise that there are very many existing schools which are committed to being as welcoming and inclusive as possible. We can learn lessons from the experience of these schools and ensure that good practice can become the norm.

As a next step in this process, I launched a public consultation exercise to get the views of parents and interested parties on how primary schools can make all children feel included and involved. The closing date for receipt of submissions is this Friday. We have made a special effort, in conjunction with the National Parents Council Primary, to reach out to parents and get their views. The submissions received, together with the forum report findings and recommendations, will all be taken into consideration in the preparation of a white paper in 2014.

The education system in Ireland has a long and interesting history. Dr FitzGerald’s book is a very welcome contribution to our knowledge of the origins of the system and how those who designed it met the challenges of their times. I am very keen to ensure that in the same spirit, we continue to adapt and modify the system to ensure it meets the needs of modern Ireland. My goal is an education system that respects the beliefs of all who participate in it.

nRuairi Quinn is minister for education and skills. Irish Primary Education in the Early Nineteenth Century by Garret FitzGerald is published by the Royal Irish Academy

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