Speaking Notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Opening of the Academic Year Address at School of Education Studies, Dublin City University ‘Changing Society, Changing Schools’

22 Sep 2006






‘Changing Society, Changing Schools’

The Irish school system, despite all its weaknesses and the lack of investment to
which the recent OECD report drew attention, has served the country well.  It is
important to pinpoint inadequacies in our country’s investment and policies in
education. It is equally important to pay tribute to those teachers who have worked
in difficult situations to ensure that every boy or girl under their care, with
their individual talents and problems, really could become the person that God
wants them to be and together become a new generation of which we can all be proud.

As a society we have much to be grateful for in our teachers.  But gratitude would
be empty if it was not accompanied by a desire to ensure that the profession of
teaching receives the economic and above all the social recognition it deserves.   
There is strong evidence that any lowering of the social status of teachers has
serious detrimental effects on the quality of education. Social status is not
identical with economic recognition, but both are interlinked.  I would be
concerned, for example, by reports that teachers are among the group of public
servants who are finding it increasingly difficult to purchase a home in many
of the large cities in which they work.

Living abroad as I did for many years, many people asked me what was the key to
Ireland recent remarkable economic progress.  I always responded immediately:
“in the first place, the educational system”.   That might seem strange from
someone of my generation who went through a less adequate school system than
that of today, when teacher/pupil ratios were extremely high, premises poor,
equipment little more than a blackboard and conformity was the order of the day.  
What made the Irish education system so good was the quality of those teachers
who, even within such a system, were still able to generate a fascination for
learning, for literature, for mathematics, for history, you name it, and indeed
for religious education too.

Mistakes were made, but despite the heavy emphasis on memory and rote learning,
creativity and inventiveness were still on the order of the day.  Creativity
and capacity for innovation are the fundamental requirements to enter profitably
into a knowledge-based economy and society.  This is why so many Irish women
and men, and therefore our economy, have done so well in a modern economic
climate.  The ability to foster creativity and innovation should be a signpost
to guide and evaluate the future of the Irish educational system.

Another factor which contributed to the success of the Irish educational system
is one that is perhaps often overlooked.  One of the strong characteristics of
the Irish educational model, especially in primary schools, is that it is
community-rooted.  The school belongs within a community and is managed from
within the community. Boards of Management not only carry out the difficult
task of ensuring the day to day management of the school but they also represent
a strong bond with the local community which looks on the school as a genuine
“social good”.  

A sense of “community ownership” brings a new dimension to the quality of the
work of a school.  There is evidence from around the world that the closer
education is to the local community the more effective it can be.  The school
is not just a mechanism for transmitting information, but for awakening a
passion for learning, a healthy curiosity, a respect for difference and
diversity and a commitment to good citizenship.  This can only happen when
the school is linked to the realities of the broader context of a community.

I do not underestimate the difficulties of such local management.  Parents are
often interested in their child at school and less interested in the school
when the child leaves. It is not easy to get people with the required skills
to sit on Boards of Management.  People are off-put by the complexity of issues
that they have to face.  I believe that these difficulties could be overcome
by greater investment in training Boards of Management and perhaps in providing
more effective support systems in certain legal and technical areas.  I would
hope that the theme of support for Boards of Management would appear higher-up
on the list of priorities of our educational policy in the months and years to

The question arises now as to what the Irish educational system will look like
in five or ten years time.  The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in these
days addressed the question of the demographic change in Ireland where many
immigrants are not Catholics while the ethos of most schools is Catholic.  We
have Catholic schools in Dublin where over 50% are international children – in
one school the new entries are 80% this year. Many of these will not be Catholics.

I have on more than one occasion expressed my opinion that the fostering of
plurality of educational patronage is something desirable and welcome in Ireland
today and could bring benefit to all, and indeed also in allowing the specifically
Catholic school to be more distinctively Catholic.    

Allow me to make some comments on what such a plurality might look like and where
the Catholic school might find its place.  Plurality of systems does not in any
way mean that the Catholic school is going off the agenda.  It has its place and
will maintain it in the future as long as Catholic families want it.

The first thing that I would hope for is that that this plurality of patronage
should not be at the expense of the community ownership of schools which has worked
so well.  This could happen through education being looked at as a service run just
like any business.  It could happen through the reinforcement of a “new elitism”,
where “academic success” dominates, leaving the “school of the community” as a
carry-all for the less able or less fortunate, or even worse through the creation
by stealth of ghetto schools where problems concentrate.

True community ownership would also be weakened through an over-centralized
bureaucracy or through a system where school management would be carved up for
narrow political interests.

What is the future of the Catholic school in the new context?  There is a viewpoint
which tends to look at religious education as something ideological, divisive and
doctrinaire and perhaps not really a good thing for young people and certainly
alien to what should belong to a school curriculum in a modern pluralist democracy.   
Catholic ethos is often regrettably portrayed as a kind of ideology, set within
an ideological battle.  

The primary witness of the Catholic school – shared with Schools of other Christian
denominations – is that of witnessing to the extraordinary vision of life that faith
in Jesus Christ offers to young people.   The message of a God who loves – who reveals
himself in Jesus Christ as one who gives himself totally out of love – is the transforming
message that the Catholic school brings to the child and to society.

Religious education is not a marginal extra in the Catholic school.  Religious education,
however, must always be marked by its quality. True religious education leads to an
opening of children’s minds and helps them along the first steps of reflection on the
meaning of their own lives and values. It stimulates creativity and innovation and that
openness to the transcendent which encourages the young person to go beyond him or
herself. It invites young people to experience the love of God which insists on love
of one’s neighbour.

Religious education is best understood as an exciting project which is truly in harmony
with a modern pluralist society and can indeed be the best antidote to a culture of
consumerism and superficiality, such as can emerge in a market-dominated culture in
which everything has its price and you get just what you pay for.

Quality religious instruction in a culture in which so many of us are more and more
reduced to the role of passive spectator, involves fostering imagination and creativity
within religious education as a necessary prelude to being able to teach people about
the specific content of religious truth.   Young people will only come to appreciate
the concept of a gratuitously loving God, when they are lifted out of the closed,
measurable world into the world of mystery in the best sense of that word.

Many of my generation, despite still being able quote the Catechism, have drifted
far from belief.   This is often due to the fact that they never had that real sense
of an experience of who Jesus is and what an encounter with him in might mean. There
are others who can regurgitate the formulations of the Church’s moral teaching but
who have rejected that teaching because it was presented as superficial moralism
rather than as an experience of what a truly loving and responsible relationship
in life might mean.

Pluralism in religious belief has now entered into a new chapter in its history in
Ireland.  In this new reality the school must become a primary focus for fostering
a climate of knowledge about various religions and about dialogue and mutual respect
among different religious traditions.

In this State all religious confessions have the right to expect the respect and the
support of the State in education within one’s own denomination and tradition. Is
this something which divides the community?   I do not believe so.  Dialogue does
not mean abandoning identity. Identity within a specific religious tradition can
also be one open to and respectful of other religious traditions and of those who
do not hold any religious faith.  The Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin
have been extraordinarily sensitive to the fact of difference of ethnic, national
and religious background in the school community and they deserve credit for what
they have achieved.  Many Catholic schools, especially in the greater Dublin area,
are multi-ethnic. Parents who have come recently to our shores – no matter of what
religion or faith – place their confidence in our Catholic schools knowing that
their children will be welcomed and will grow happily in their new environment.  

There are some who would perhaps hope that in time both Catholic schools and
religious education in schools would have well neigh vanished.   Religion for
some should be reduced to the private sphere. Some would tend to exclude religion
from the everyday life of society and reduce it to a totally private sphere,
almost to stress that somehow faith is not “real” in the same sense as the natural
sciences are.    

The State should be neutral in addressing religious diversity in the sense that it
does not favour any individual religious community, except where such a community
may suffer disproportionate disadvantage because of size or other reason.  But there
is no evidence that a totally “religiously neutral secularist society” is the best
space in which to foster dialogue between religions.  There are forms of secular
society in which hostility to religious values can indeed force religious groups
into a dangerously narrow perception of their culture and thus sharpen religious

There are effectively very few directly State managed primary schools in Ireland
and these are mainly in the area of special education.   We are moving towards
developing a plurality of models of patronage for primary education in a culturally
pluralist society.   Any new system should be strongly rooted in the community.  
Any system of direct State patronage should, as I have said, foster rather than
weaken strong community ownership and that sense of welcome to the entire community
that Catholic schools have in fact been offering.

I would argue that in a climate of emerging religious diversity, such State managed
schools should not be a-religious or God-less, but that religious education should
be an integral part of the curriculum. We do not live in a God-less society.  A
programme of religious instruction could have an element of instruction on the
variety of religious tradition present in the community but should also permit
those parents who wish it, to have their children educated in the faith or the
particular confession to which they belong.   This is the model that is present
in numerous countries in continental Europe and has shown its worth.   It is the
model in existing Community Schools at secondary level in Ireland.

Some may raise the difficulty that the simultaneous provision of religious instruction
in primary schools according to different confessions or faiths may result in a
fragmentation of class unity, in a system where there are “class teachers” rather
than “subject teachers”. The changed reality of religious diversity in Irish society
and in the individual classroom is inevitably pushing in that direction any way
whether we like it or not.   It is a challenge we must confront and I believe can

Guaranteeing denominational religious instruction in a new form of State sponsored
primary school, not directly under religious patronage, would also allow the State
to have an overseeing role in ensuring the quality of teaching of religion in order
to ensure that abuses do not emerge or any form of fundamentalism in any religious
tradition gain ground.

Change is needed and is coming in the Irish educational model.  But that change
should take place in an appropriate environment.  Education cannot be judged
exclusively in terms of quantifiable economic or technical outcomes.  A good
educational system undoubtedly brings economic advantages to society but education
should never be seen merely as a form of economic investment.

Educational policy should always have a special focus on those who are disadvantaged.  
Why do people drop out of the schools system?  Why do disproportionate numbers drop
out in certain areas and among certain social groups?  What are the special factors
which might impede international children from fully benefiting from our educational
system?   Is it just that those who come from backgrounds where they can pay for
private education and grind schools effectively do better than others?

The challenges are many.  The temptation is to reply only in terms of what is most
efficient economically.  This may not take into consideration the situation of
disadvantage that certain communities suffer and which might well justify taking
special measures to favour those areas, if even for a limited period of time.

My strong conviction is that a pluralist society can be best served by a plurality
in schools, in which the variety of cultures and religious backgrounds are reflected,
rather than through centralized uniformity.  I have attempted to show, for example,
how a good Catholic school provides a special contribution to values within society.  
Those who opt for such a system should not therefore be doubly burdened as in some
countries through favouring in an exclusive way a State model.

It is a great time to be involved in education. There are many challengers and
difficulties ahead.  We have, however, the opportunity to get it right in education
at this moment.  But that opportunity may not repeat itself.  We have the financial
possibilities to get it right.  We need to foster broad debate and avoid narrow
ideologies.   We need both pragmatism and vision.  I hope that this new Graduate
Diploma Course in Education will be a place where new thinking will emerge.  


Clare Roche
Communications Office,
Archbishop’s House,
Dublin 9.
Telephone: (01) 836 0723
Facsimile: (01) 836 0793