New state-run school a historic step for integrated schooling

Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times believes a landmark moment (subs needed) in Irish education has been reached with the decision to establish State-run primary schools in the Irish Republic. What is especially interesting is that the move has been warmly welcomed by the Catholic Church. The new model of primary school patronage will be introduced, on a pilot basis, at a national school in Diswellstown, Co Dublin, due to open in September 2008.
According to Bishop Leo O’Reilly, chairman of the Education Commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference:

“The Constitution of Ireland provides for the education of children from all faiths and of none. To this end the development of models of educational patronage is something desirable and welcome in contemporary Ireland. The Catholic Church has always supported the rights of parents to establish schools that reflect the values of the home.”

McGarry argues that the support of the Catholic Church for this move seems to contradict the common belief that there is a battle going on between the Catholic bishops and “relentless secularising forces” in a fight to the death over who would have control over the education of Ireland’s children.

Such reports would now appear to have been greatly exaggerated. For the first time since the primary school network was set up under denominational patronage in 1831, the State has indicated it is investigating a new form of patronage by which it will control primary schools where “a traditional patron is not available”.

The new national school will be under the patronage of Co Dublin VEC and will take in students from different parts of the community. Hanafin has said she does not intend recognising VECs as the patrons of any other primary schools until the evaluation process is complete. But McGarry believe a historic point has been reached:

What we are looking at here is a historic development which in time will see the State assume a growing role in the patronage of primary schools as Ireland’s communities become more pluralist. Apart from nine model schools, set up under ministerial patronage in the 19th century, no primary schools in the Republic have been under State control.

Since 1831 it has been mainly the church authorities who have acted as patrons of primary schools. Such schools have been privately owned if publicly funded institutions, their denominational character and ethos acknowledged and accepted by the State.

The article points out that currently of the 3,279 primary schools in Ireland, 3,039 are under Catholic patronage; 183 are under the Church of Ireland; 14 under Presbyterian patronage; one Methodist; 34 multidenominational; five interdenominational; two Muslim; one Jewish; and one under Jehovah’s Witnesses patronage.

Now it seems the State is getting in on the act with Hanafin saying the new school at Diswellstown, is “recognition of the changing face of modern Ireland” and that it is hoped it will cater for the diversity of religious faiths represented in the area.

“Provision will be made within the school setting for the religious, moral and ethical education of children in conformity with the wishes of their parents.”

The project, and in particular the Catholic Church’s support of it, has received a ringing endorsement from Michael Wardlow, Chief Executive Officer of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education.

In a letter to the Irish Times, he wrote:

Bishop Leo O’Reilly’s support for parents’ rights “to establish schools that reflect the values of the home” strike a chord with many parents, both Protestant and Catholic, here in the North, who would love to have their children educated together and, in the bishop’s own words, bring together children of “all faiths and none” in one school.

This aim has been at the centre of the movement for integrated education here over the past 25 years.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could move ahead together, rather than apart, and if the Irish Bishops’ Conference would take the lead here as well and endorse moves towards jointly managed schools, whether church-initiated or otherwise?

I feel this would send a strong signal to all education providers – but more importantly the parents – as we create our shared future together built on mutual respect and trust.

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