Address by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Chair of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Education, at the Department of Education & Science conference:’The Governance Challenge for Future Primary School Needs’

27 Jun 2008

27 June 2008

Address by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Chair of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Education

at the Department of Education & Science conference:’The Governance Challenge for Future Primary School Needs’, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin
I wish to thank the Minister for Education and Science, Minister Batt O’Keeffe, for the invitation to participate in today’s panel discussion and to deliver a short presentation on the perspective of the Bishops’ Commission for Education on governance challenges facing primary schools in a changing society.

My input today is informed by the following education documentation published recently by the Irish Episcopal Conference responding to changing conditions in our country:

  • Catholic Primary Schools – A Policy for Provision into the future – October 2007
  • Factors Determining School Choice – Report on a survey of the attitudes of Parents of Children attending Catholic Primary Schools in Ireland – April 2008
  • Vision 08 – A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland – May 2008

Please see for details of these documents.

The context of my remarks is the roll-out of a new pilot model of primary school patronage. The focus is the shared challenges in ensuring that the collective system can respond appropriately to changing societal circumstances.

The theme of my input will be as suggested by the Minister: the Catholic Church’s vision of patronage; how the Church sees its role as patron and the role of the other patron bodies, including the new community national school model, evolving to meet the needs of societal change and diversity; wider questions such as how the provision of choice can be balanced with resource constraints.

1. Our vision of patronage

Primary School Patronage has evolved as a very useful mechanism for educational provision in Ireland. From the outset I wish to single out and place on record our indebtedness to generations of highly professional and dedicated principals and teachers in our schools.

Our Constitution lays down that the State provides for free Primary education and also undertakes to support private education initiatives. It is noteworthy that the Constitution does not say that the State provides primary education but rather provides for it, and the State has done this so far through the system of patronage. The Constitution thus envisages Subsidiarity in educational provision and the different patron bodies are involved in making this provision at local level.

This has meant that different groups in society have been able to provide educational services with the assistance of the Department of Education and Science while maintaining a degree of independence. This is good for all concerned, because as far as possible, the wishes of parents, in terms of the education needs of their children, have been met.

Patronage is normally exercised through BOMs chosen from the local community and representative of the various partners in the educational enterprise. This contributes to participation and democracy in the education system and ensures a strong local commitment to and interest in the welfare of the school. It also ensures that, in accordance with the Principle of Subsidiarity, authority in schools is exercised at the appropriate level, that is, the level of the local community.

The Patronage system also caters for the needs of a pluralist society where groups have differing philosophies of education, and it allows for the education of the young in accordance with the wishes of parents who have different religious, cultural or other convictions.

The new model of patronage will see the Vocational Education Authority acting as patron of Primary Schools. There are two existing models of patronage that operate successfully at second level:

  • Designated Community Colleges under the co-trusteeship of the VEC and the local Diocese. The interests of the Diocese are protected by a model agreement. The Diocese is represented on the BOM and interview boards. The teaching of RE is protected by the model agreement as is the appointment of an ex quota Chaplain.
  • Community schools where the joint trustees are the Vocational Education Committee, Religious Order(s) involved in education, and/or the Bishop or other Trustee. These schools are governed by joint trustees. The success of these models at second level suggests that consideration should be given to them at primary level as other possibilities for the patronage of schools.

2. Catholic Church’s Position

The Catholic Church has the largest number of schools under its patronage in the State:

  • 100 schools catering for children with special needs and
  • 2,917 mainstream schools.

This is to be expected since the Catholic Church numerically represents the largest denomination in the State. As a Church we are committed to the maintenance of Catholic schools in situations where such schools are the choice of parents for the education of their children.

In a recent survey of the attitudes of Parents of Children attending Catholic Schools conducted by the Bishops’ Council for Research and Development the majority of respondents believed that the churches should continue to have a prominent role in provision of primary schools. This attitude is reinforced in a separate Red C poll of March 2008 where it was found that only 11% wanted a school in which no religion is taught.

Recent societal trends manifest significant changes affecting the Catholic Church in terms of membership and adherence to Catholic values. The presence of growing numbers of other religious groups and groups not affiliated to Religious Beliefs in Ireland challenges the extent of the Catholic Church’s involvement in primary education. This was acknowledged in our document Catholic Primary Schools: A Policy for Provision into the Future, which was published last year.

In paragraph 5.1 of that document we stated:
“Some places are currently experiencing huge inflows of new residents, sometimes doubling or trebling the enrolment of parish schools in the space of a few years. This usually happens because there is no other educational provision in the area. It is sometimes the case that people choose the Catholic school simply because it is the only school available, and not because they wish their children to have a Catholic education. This can cause difficulties for parents who do not share the ethos of a Catholic school. It can also put an unfair financial and administrative burden on the parish. We feel that in such circumstances the Church should not be left with the task of providing for the educational needs of the whole community. As the Catholic Church accepts that there should be choice and diversity within a national education system, it believes that parents who desire schools under different patronage should, where possible, be facilitated in accessing them. In new centers of population it is incumbent upon the State to plan for the provision of school sites and to ensure, in consultation with the various patron bodies, that there is a plurality of school provision reflecting the wishes of the parents in the area.”

3. The Catholic Church as Patron and other Patron Bodies

The Catholic Church considers religious instruction an integral part of education. It should be part of the curriculum and taught during the school day like other subjects. It should include faith formation and preparation for the sacraments. In that same document outlining our policy on school provision into the future we stated, in paragraph 5.2:

“In certain circumstances it may be considered desirable to enter into new patronage arrangements, provided these arrangements respect the rights of Catholic parents, in particular in relation to the provision of religious instruction of their children within the school curriculum.”

It is on this basis that the Bishops’ Education Commission formally welcomed Minister Hanafin’s announcement of an additional model of patronage for primary schools. We welcomed in particular the Minister’s statement that “Provision will be made within the school setting for religious, moral and ethical education of children in conformity with the wishes of their parents”

The Minister’s Commitment is in agreement with the European Convention on Human Rights which states “….. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions.” We reiterate our welcome for the additional model of patronage of Primary Schools today. We believe, as we have said in our policy document on provision for Catholic schools into the future, that a greater plurality of school provision in our society is desirable and necessary to meet the needs of a more pluralist Irish society.

4. Religious Education in the new community school model

The question arises about how this model can be delivered. The DES invited the Bishops’ Commission and the Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA) to discuss how religious education could be delivered in the new model of patronage. We accepted that invitation in good faith and proposed a model for delivery based on what had already worked very successfully for many years at second level.

This is the model outlined in Circular 7/79 in relation to Vocational schools. It has also been adapted for Community and Comprehensive schools. In this model children are instructed in religion in accordance with their parents’ wishes by teachers who are qualified to do so. Where there is no teacher on the school staff qualified to instruct the children of a particular faith, a qualified teacher is employed on a part-time basis from outside the school.

The question will arise about who is competent to provide religious instruction for children of a particular faith. In the earlier discussion of this in the media (Irish Independent Tuesday March 25 2008 and the RTE news bulletins) the Catholic Church was accused of asking for a veto on the appointment of teachers. What was being sought was not a veto but a mechanism for assuring that teachers of religion were appropriately qualified to teach the faith to children of a particular religion.

We would want this for other faiths as well as our own. The appointment of teachers of Religious Education would be most appropriately arrived at by Church and State working together.

5. Challenges to Government in the delivery of the new community school model

There are many challenges in the delivery of this new school model. I will enumerate some of them:


It will be crucial and challenging to develop and articulate an ethos for the proposed schools that recognises the core values for the human person and is respectful and inclusive of difference. However, this is not an insurmountable task and there are many models from which to draw. A key benchmark in the impact of ethos is its implementation in the day-to-day life of the school.

Delivery of Religious Education

The Minister and the DES are to be applauded on the stated intention to include Instruction in Religious Belief and formation in Religious Faith in the timetable of the school. While acknowledging the pivotal role of the family and the parish community in handing on faith, schools play a central role in catechesis and literacy in religious belief. The proposed model is probably unique in its intention to offer such formation and education in matters of faith in a State school and its progress will be carefully observed. This is a wonderful opportunity as well as a challenge.

It is essential that Religious Education is delivered by teachers qualified in the faith of the child and approved by the Competent Religious Authority. In developing programs for the delivery of RE the expertise of the Teacher Training Colleges, existing denominational syllabi and programs for RE will be an important resource. The need to consult with the authorities of the different Churches and Faiths represented in the schools should be obvious.

The Catholic Church would not support a model consisting only of a common religious education program delivered simultaneously to children of different religious traditions. Such a programme would necessarily be minimal in content and would lead to confusion of religious identity. It is true that children grow in respect and love for one another through being introduced from an early age to the customs and religious traditions of others. However such respect and love presupposes basic formation in one’s own religious identity.

Funding and Provision

Given that the new Community Primary schools will be effectively State schools a major challenge will be to ensure that (i) it will not be assumed that in future all or most schools would be under this model of patronage and (ii) that schools under other models of patronage would receive equal funding to the schools under VEC patronage. By funding here we refer not only to funding for the provision and running of schools but also for the management and administration costs involved.


There are definite challenges facing Governance in the context of a new pilot model of primary school patronage. Such challenges are not insurmountable and must be faced in response to the education needs of contemporary Irish society. It is in bravely facing such challenges together that we will provide for the education of a new generation. It is urgent that in seeking to ensure that the rights of minorities are respected that we do not sacrifice the rights of the majority in doing so. The temptation to ignore differences and to fit everybody into a single model must be resisted. A one-size-fits-all approach cannot respond adequately to the current needs of our Irish school going population.

Thank you.

Bishop Leo O’Reilly


Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications 5053010, 5053017 and 086 172 7678