Home > Commentary > Protestant Schools Dispute Continues

Protestant Schools Dispute Continues

The debate about the funding of Protestant schools in the Republic trundles on. I blogged about it here just over a week ago. Yesterday, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. John Neill(pictured above) in his Presidential address to the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Synod, argued that the Republic’s Protestant schools could be entirely wiped out by cuts in their funding. In a new twist to the story, Dr. Neill claimed that the new decision to end the 40 year arrangement whereby ancilliary funding was provided to Protestant fee-paying schools on the same basis as schools which were members of the free education scheme was not driven by financial concerns. Rather, “[i]t was driven by what amounts to a very determined and doctrinaire effort within the Department of Education to strike at a sector which some officials totally failed to understand.” Accusing Minister O’Keeffe of  “attempt[ing]…  to place all Protestants into a category of privilege – suggesting that they have chosen private education – is manifestly unjust.” In the Archbishop’s experience many Protestant parents were “very poor, and I mean very poor indeed, who sacrifice much in order to send their children to a school of their own tradition.” These people would be the worst affected by the funding cutbacks since schools hoping to survive, in the Archbishop’s view, “ will only do so by charging excessive fees, thereby excluding the very community they were founded to serve.” Fee-paying Protestant schools have also faced an increase in the pupil teacher ratio to 20 pupils to one teacher, compared to 19 to one in other secondary schools.

The Archbishop also made an independent ‘minority rights’ claim, asserting that “[w]idespread dependence on schools of the majority religious ethos requires that alternatives are catered for. A minority is as entitled to schools under their own patronage as much as the majority.” That seems to be a fair point in the prevailing circumstances. Of course, the unasked question is whether the rights of children of majority and minority religious communities, and children of no religion might be as well served by a secular state-funded school system.

Dr.  Neill has a point to make, not only about the normative questions of provision for minority education but about the proper shape of government-minority dialogue in Ireland. It is clear that he feels that the community which he represents has been disrespectfully treated by the Minister; a point which was seized upon yesterday in the Dail by the Fine Gael Education spokesman Brian Hayes. Hayes also pointed out that Catholic representatives had not raised any objection to the Protestant schools arrangement.

The Minister insists that the block funding provided to Protestant schools adequately discharges the state’s duty to Protestant communities as religious minorities. RTE News hints at the Department of Education’s (and the Attorney General’s) understanding of the Constitutional justification for the cutbacks:

The Education Department says Article 44 of the Constitution permits State aid to denominational schools but only on the basis that there is no discrimination between schools of different denominations…It says Minister O’Keeffe is prepared to consider any proposals that would focus funding on rural Protestant schools that are in need of special support.

Think how much more justly we would be able to resolve disputes of this type if our understanding of the constitutional protection of every child’s right to education – in many ways a jewel in the crown of our constitution – were less bound up in the autonomy of his family and of his religious group than in a concern to see that no child’s educational opportunities should be limited by his parents’ means. There is something grubby in the sudden discovery of  inter-denominational discrimination when the government is mid-triage on our failing economy; a situation which has not escaped the Archbishop’s notice. The government ought to be able to articulate, in robust terms, the outlines of the relationship between the state and religious communities, lest it stand accused once more, of instrumentalising rights discourse in the service of baser ends.

The Minister will meet with representatives of the Protestant schools affected today.

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  1. Ian
    October 21, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Of course the difficulty here is really that the State has no interest in providing a widespread secular system of education because to do so would result in an increased cost to the exchequer. Similarly, the State has no interest in taking on the obligations of the Protestant fee paying schools into the free system because it would also result in increased costs – it was in fact claimed before and Oireachtas committee that a fee paying school had attempted to enter the free system and that the approach was rejected by the Department of Education.

    The problem in all of this is that there is no appetite on the part of the State to ‘fix’ the entire system because to do so would set it on a collision course with the Catholic Church and result in an increased cost to the State in order to provide many services which are currently provided by fees, in the case of Protestant schools, or through funding from religious orders, in respect of Catholic schools. That is the crux of the issue, all the State is trying to do is simply make a cut, and is doing so in a discriminatory manner.

    The advice of the Attorney General has not been released but the explanation from the Minister would indicate that the advice is clearly defective. The Constitution also provides that parents would not be obliged to send their child to a school of a particular type in violation of their conscience (Art 42.2). The reality for most Protestants is that if fees are not supported they will be forced to send their child to a different school. Given that such other schools are, in the vast majority of cases, under the auspices of the Catholic Church it is clear that the cuts will force them to attend such schools in contravention of Art 42.2.

    There is then good reason for the State to provide such support – to give effect to the Art 42 rights of the parent. There is also good legal precedent for the State providing such funding in a differnet manner to a different community in order that true effect be given to their Constitutional right. This was recognised in respect of different opening hours granted to Jewish shops, which was argued was unconstitutional and was found not to be. It was also the case in respect of additional grants being given to single mothers, which was held not to be an undermining of the institution of marriage as it gave effect to the rights of the children of such mothers who were particularly vulnerable.

  2. October 21, 2009 at 9:29 am

    People might also be interested to read the tweets of Bishop Paul Colton last night where he claimed on his twitter that he and other members of the CofI had in fact made representations to the Minister: http://twitter.com/b2dac/

    Hat tip on this to Maman Poulet: http://www.mamanpoulet.com/the-tweeting-bishop-and-the-minister-of-education/

  3. Ian
    October 24, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Interesting letter from Gerry Whyte on the issue today in the Irish Times. It largely aligns with my view above – which as a law student I’m pleased about :-P.

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/letters/2009/1024/1224257388549.html

  1. October 30, 2009 at 4:54 pm
  2. December 28, 2009 at 7:39 pm
  3. April 21, 2010 at 11:54 am

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