Home > Constitution of Ireland, Immigration and Asylum, Law, Culture and Religion > Public education and migration: the patronage system under scrutiny

Public education and migration: the patronage system under scrutiny

As the Irish Independent reported yesterday, the OECD “has proposed that the Government set up new state-run primary schools to better cater for the new multi-ethnic pupil population.” In its review of migrant education in Ireland, published in December 2009, the organisation observed: “the Irish authorities should consider creating net new capacity and re-deploying existing capacity through this channel [of multidenominational schools].” Furthermore, it notes: “a new model of primary school patronage, under the VEC structure, catering for children of all beliefs and none, reflecting the increasing diversity in this area, is currently in operation in two locations in Dublin.”

The system of educational patronage, through which the public education function in Ireland has historically been delegated to bodies owned by, and operated according to the ethos of the religious denominations prevailing in particular areas, has been the subject or renewed contestation since the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports in particular. Although the State remains formally neutral in law between different religious denominations, most notably in the Education Act 1998, which gives legislative status to school “patrons” – to whom boards of management are accountable for the upholding of the ethos or “characteristic spirit” of schools – Ireland nonetheless has a de facto hegemony of Catholic-ethos schools, with parents in many areas of the State having little choice but to avail of these. For recent commentary on the patronage system from the standpoint of the republican premise of non-domination, see Tom Hickey’s recent post on this site.

In recent years, the overwhelmingly confessional model of school patronage has increasingly been defended and justified with reference to the secular goods of “choice” and “diversity”. The Catholic ethos of State-funded schools is justified, this line of argument goes, insofar as this remains the choice of parents in particular area, while other school models are also supported on a basis of formal equality – but only insofar as a “critical mass” of parents demand this in a particular area.

On the one hand, the OECD report sensibly notes the limitations on the capacity of the current model of patronage to accommodate greater “diversity” merely by extending the religious and other models supported in particular areas, merely where the demand exists. It states

“… if the ethnic composition of catchment areas is subject to change, even re-configuration of patron bodies begins looking Procrustean. A more radical option would be to channel expansion, and even transfer the authority over existing institutions away from the system of education provision by patron bodies.”

Given the impossibility of the State providing schools attuned to all possible beliefs in all areas of the State, this is the only foreseeable way to universally guarantee the free religious choice of parents: that the State provide public education, in all areas of the State, through institutions which are not committed to imparting any particular, comprehensive religious or ideological doctrines. Only respect for religious pluralism within schools, rather than the mere plurality of patrons that currently exists – in an anaemic formal sense, at least – is sufficient to universally guarantee parental autonomy. The “diversity” argument has been cynically deployed, by the Government and churches, to justify the status quo. It is almost embarrassingly obvious that this stance leaves parents’ and children’s rights subject to certain demographic contingencies in particular, guaranteeing religious freedom only for those positioned within a “critical mass” of the like-minded which may make the necessary demands on the State.

However, the OECD report also appears, almost unconsciously, to assimilate the question of the denominational patronage of schools into the very different one of ethnic or racial difference. It observes: “the question that emerges in this context is whether the relative share of schools operated by the different patron bodies reflects the changing composition of society in Ireland.” However, while immigration has helped to illuminate the absurdities of the model of patronage and accentuate popular perceptions of its inadequacies in accommodating various forms of difference, it is a mistake to juxtapose the religious liberty needs of the “majority” community, white and Catholic, with those of the “minority” members of other religions, of whatever ethnic or cultural backgrounds. This fails to take seriously the inevitably individuated nature of religious difference. We should be wary of making the accommodation of religious freedom in schools a crude function of the “numbers” of those advancing their claims, of subsuming the religious liberty needs of individuals within the broader social and political claim of the ethnic or religious group within which the State may designate them as belonging. The conditions of respect for religious liberty, in the education context, are the same for relatively homogenous societies as for multi-ethnic ones, if we take seriously the capacity of persons to pursue and revise their doctrines and beliefs irrespective of their origins. This is the direction, at least, in which the conclusions of the OECD report point, and which the Government, all too keen to maintain its strategy of mediating group claims on a basis of ostensible pluralism, will inevitably reject.

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