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Parental Choice, Religion and Education in Ireland

November 17, 2009 Leave a comment

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 [1998] 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”

Protestant Schools and the Economic Downturn

October 12, 2009 2 comments
Minister for Education, Batt OKeeffe TD

Minister for Education, Batt O'Keeffe TD

The Sunday Independent yesterday published an opinion piece by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD in which he responded to this article by Alan Ruddock. Mr. Ruddock had attacked the decision taken by the Minister in last year’s budget to strip a group of fee-paying Protestant secondary schools of a category of ancilliary funding – used to pay caretakers and secretaries – totalling about €3m annually. 21 of the 56 fee-paying secondary schools in the country subscribe to a Protestant ethos. In 1966, during the term of office of  the Fianna Fail Minister for Education Donagh O’Malley, the State came to an agreement with this group of schools; an ad hoc solution to an issue of accommodation of religious minorities. At the time, O’Malley planned to introduce a system of free secondary education for the first time in Ireland’s history. He succeeded. The government in which he served  recognised that because the Protestant population in Ireland was so small and so widely dispersed,  it would be impractical for the State to provide Protestant children with the type of schooling which Catholic children could easily access by virtue of being part of the religious majority: a free secondary education grounded in an appropriate religious framework. The government therefore agreed to provide ‘block funding’  which covers day to day running costs, tuition and boarding grants to Protestant schools. The amount of funding this year was €6.5m. The block funding is distributed, via the Secondary Education Committee, to support Protestant children whose parents would not otherwise be able to send them to a fee-paying school, thus closing an important ‘equality gap’ in the new secondary education regime. The block funding – so-called because it is given to the SEC in a lump sum rather than per capita as happens in the majority of schools – remains in place as it has done for over 40 years but these fee-paying schools will no longer receive ancilliary grants, which from now on will be provided only to non-fee-paying schools. They are expected to raise any necessary extra income from their own resources by taking on more students, or if necessary by joining the free education scheme. The Protestant Secondary Education blog has policy documents from a conference held in Dublin on October 3, together with a good selection of media responses, including audio clips here.

This is the second time in as many years that the Minister’s policies have provoked anger among Ireland’s Protestants, many of whom have, in the words of Cork’s Bishop Paul Colton, come to view the accommodation of Protestant education as ‘a litmus of how Ireland treats and values us’. In June of last year, four Protestant secondary schools mounted a High Court challenge to the government’s teacher redeployment scheme, which would have required them to accept teachers onto their staff who had been made redundant by school closures elsewhere in Dublin. The schools sought a declaration that it would be unconstitutional for the Minister for Education to compel them to employ teachers who were not of the Protestant faith without any assurance that these teachers would subscribe to the ethos of the schools concerned. The schools expressed concern that their hiring autonomy would be severely circumscribed. The case settled, but the terms of the settlement were not released.

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