Parental Choice, Religion and Education in Ireland
The Irish Times reported on Friday that ‘the Department of Education is to establish where in Ireland choice in the provision of primary schools in terms of ethos may be required’. This was the outcome of a meeting between representatives of Catholic school patrons and department officials. The church controls more than 92 per cent of primary schools (3,000 of the total of 3,200) in the State. Bishop Leo O’Reilly, who is chairman of the Irish Bishops’ Conference Commission on Education, said church representatives had “emphasised strongly” the role of parents and “respect for parental choice” in the provision of a diverse range of schools. The Catholic thinktank the Iona Institute has also called on the Department to to respect “the principle of parental choice in any talks about the future of denominational schools in Ireland.”
The approach which is proposed to be taken in respect of primary school provision seems extremely problematic. The bishops and the department have not, evidently, proposed any change to the long-standing approach whereby the government provides funding, on a basis of formal equality, neutrality and non-discrimination, to religious primary and secondary schools whether Catholic or not. In this article in the Judicial Studies Institute Journal Eoin Daly writes – assessing the schools funding jurisprudence that flows from the Campaign case  3 I.R. 321 that:
… this faith in the remediating virtue of formal non- discrimination in the regulation of the Church-State relationship cannot withstand critical scrutiny – primarily because a guarantee of non-discrimination in the State funding of religious denominations does not guarantee that the beliefs of all persons will be equally privileged or favoured…As Ravitch argues, conceptions of neutrality, as between religions and between religion and irreligion, ignore the substantive inequality which may arise in such situations. Where government engages with religions on a formally non- discriminatory basis in the public education context, it may favour large religious groups which have sufficient numbers and support to attract public funding, at the expense of individuals who belong to minority groups which cannot attract such funding even within a framework of formal equality. Thus, within a liberal-democratic constitutional order, requirements of equality and non-discrimination must evidently be constructed in terms of individuals rather than groups. This guarantee of non- discrimination does not protect those persons who are irreligious, or who belong to religions who do not operate… schools.
Perhaps, under the new approach, more regard will be had to ‘choice’, but it is unlikely that this will be enough to overcome the group-individual dichotomy at the heart of Irish education policy. As Eoin has pointed out on this blog, although the rhetoric of ‘parental choice’ and ‘demand’ is superficially attractive, if this approach boils down to the ability of a non-Catholic faith group, or of non-religious parents, to demonstrate a ‘critical mass’ in a particular geographical area, the vindication of individual rights tends to be subordinated to strictly utilitarian considerations.
Update: Discussion here from ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne”