Speaking Notes of Most Rev Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland at the Department of Education & Science conference:’The Governance Challenge for Future Primary School Needs’

27 Jun 2008

27 June 2008

Speaking Notes of Most Rev Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

at the Department of Education & Science conference:’The Governance Challenge for Future Primary School Needs’, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin
One of the first things that struck me when I became Archbishop of Dublin was just how many things other than Archbishop I had suddenly become. I had become Patron or President or Chairman or Trustee of so many bodies, of some of which I knew something, while others were less familiar. It took some time to see exactly what was involved. In many cases Patronage was honorary, simply a name on a letterhead. In other cases it meant attending one meeting a year. In some case I had got it wrong: I had thought that I was Patron of Saint Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, only to find that I was Manager, nobody seemed to know why. Above all, I was to discover rather quickly that being Patron of 460 primary schools was anything but honorary.

Professor Coolahan has set out the historical origins of the system of Patrons with regard to primary schools. It is a pragmatic term which was devised to address particular circumstances. I think, at the outset, that it is important in talking about a Catholic Church perspective on governance issues in schools today to stress that the contribution which the Catholic Church wishes to bring in education is something more fundamental and enduring than just the current structures. The Catholic Church is involved in education because, driven by convictions drawn from the teaching of Jesus Christ, it has a fundamental commitment to the good of people, especially young people and to their right to education in the fullest sense.

I make no claim that what was done in the name of the Catholic Church in education in the past was always what it should have been done. In some cases, I am ashamed of what happened. But I am also proud of what has been achieved, especially by truly great teachers, and I am genuinely open and enthusiastic about seeing that the wealth of that achievement can be integrated into a future Ireland built up on a new understanding of dialogue and respect.

The origins of the presence of religious orders in education in Ireland are to a great extent linked to a commitment to the poor and the excluded. In this sense, I would single out among the contributions of the Church to Irish education the contribution to ensuring a broadly egalitarian educational system, reaching out in a special way to the disadvantaged. This contribution continues in new ways. In many of the new areas of Dublin I have come to see the quiet, pioneering work that has been carried on for years now by religious sisters retired from teaching who are out there in the new realities of the developing areas of the city providing education to families with poor language skills. Education was the vocation of these women. Education had become embedded in their genes and they will continue as long as they can, asking nothing in return, and not asking about the religious beliefs of those they help.

This spirit is part of the worldwide commitment of the Catholic Church to education which has traditionally reached out well beyond the frontiers of the Catholic Church itself. I was struck when I was Apostolic Nuncio at the United Nations Institutions in Geneva that of the Asian Ambassadors all but the Chinese had been educated in Catholic Schools, even though none of them was Catholic. In some cases, in those countries the only chance for a girl to receive the same level of education as a boy was through the Catholic schools system.

I feel that it is important then to say something of the fundamental commitment which inspires Catholic education and the Catholic Church’s involvement in education not just to remind those who might be less enthusiastic about Catholic presence in our educational system, but also to forcibly remind my own constituency of those committed to Catholic education that we should never loose sight of the real reasons why we propose Catholic education and of the diversity of models within which our commitment can take place.

I repeat what I have said on many occasions, that I would be unhappy if Catholic schools were to become mainly elitist. Thankfully, overall the practical commitment to integration on the part of the Catholic school system is excellent. I am unhappy, however, when Catholic parents opt out of diversity and send their children to schools where there is less diversity, while I recognise that parents wish to get the best possible education for their children and that they have the right to choose the school they consider best. But the exercise of rights must also incorporate concern for the common good.

There is also a sense in which government policy contributes to such a flight from diversity, when it does not ask all patron bodies to share the burdens and challenges of diversity in an equitable way. One finds situations in which some patrons are allowed to stick to a policy of small classes and remain small and single stream and the burden then falls on other schools to accommodate all diversity.

I believe that we are at an important moment in our reflection on the role of education in Ireland. Ireland is changing and we have an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to think openly, constructively and in a more integrated way about the future of education in Ireland.

I was very much struck by an initiative taken by Pope Benedict XVI in these past months to write a letter and have it distributed to the parents and teachers of his diocese of Rome on the theme of education. The letter was entitled An Emergency in Education. It was not, as I had imagined when I first heard about it, about the Catholic schools system. Neither was he addressing a particularly Roman or Italian emergency, but a fundamental “emergency” or uncertainty about the deeper purpose of education in a growingly pragmatic and utilitarian world.

I believe that we need to develop such reflection here in Ireland as we arrive at a crossroads regarding educational policy and as we arrive at that crossroads at a time in which financial constraints may tempt us to think only in narrow pragmatic and utilitarian terms.

We have our own emergency in education. As I say we are coming to terms with it at a difficult moment when public spending is being constrained. Being realistic and pragmatic however does not mean simply balancing the books in economic terms, which clearly has to be done. We also have an obligation to best balance the other books also: to see how we can best bring about a correspondence between the real needs of the coming generations and the services that we provide. Having to constrain expenditure does not mean that we should put aside broad public debate on the adequacy or inadequacy of our educational system. We have to take stock of where we are, even if we may not be able to arrive at where we want to just now. Not to take clear stock of where we are and where our system is inadequate would be to do a disservice to our future.

At the highest level, investment in research is the key to ensuring that Ireland will be in a technological leadership position in the world. At the other end of the scale, the quality of and access to basic education is the key to inclusion rather than exclusion, to opportunity rather than marginalization for the least fortunate in our society. Taking short-cuts when it comes to investment in the creativity, skills and talent of our people is in the long term being short-sighted.

We have serious problems with the condition of many schools. I was in one school recently where the staff has to take three turns in order to have a short break, since the staff room is so small. I see communities where the population is growing rapidly, dreaming of having a school which will respond to the enthusiasm of a creative generation, and they will have to put up with something that is at most second best. We need new schools and these should be schools of excellence.

When we talk of ensuring that investment in fundamental infrastructures should continue even in times of economic downturn we are not just talking about broadband and roads, we are talking also about the fundamental social infrastructures of society, which include education and health care.

What is education about? I like the recent, even if rather abstract, definition of Italian philosopher and priest, Luigi Giussani, of education “as helping the human soul enter into the totality of the real”. This definition might appear abstract. But it is really about two simple things: it is about the human soul, not in the technical sense, but in the sense of real young people aiming to be truly mature and rounded human persons. And it is about the concrete reality of the world, but reality in its totality. Education is about helping a concrete young person to enter fully into the concrete reality of life in its totality.

To permit the individual young person to enter maturely into the reality of the world of his or her time, education must lead young people to assume responsibility for shaping their own destiny in freedom and personal integrity. Education goes beyond the idea of simply imparting techniques and information, to involve a common path of educator and student that takes the human personality of the young person seriously.

This is a very demanding path and a very time-consuming one in an educational environment which is already at times very full. There is however no alternative. Education in this sense is much more than formal education. It needs closeness and trust between the young person and the educator which us born from love. This is evident in the care and education and love of parents for their children. Yet teachers and leaders within a school community also know that to educate always involves giving a part of yourself. It is in recognising the giving of the educator that young people are led to overcome the selfishness that is in them and become in their turn capable of authentic love.

The young person is called to attain a sense of responsibility within the realities of the culture of the day, influenced by ideas, by life styles, by the basic self understanding of society. The young person must learn how to discern within that world where true progress is to be found in their own personal lives and in society as a whole. At the same time, the young person has to learn that society is not an abstraction or a force which is absolutely determinant regarding his or her own values and life style. Education will take place in a particular context, but all of us have the ability and indeed the responsibility to change the context within which education can take place.

Where must this verification take place? It must also take place within a community. The young person needs to belong to a community where together with his or her peers he can encounter the experience of the values he aspires to. This is where the Catholic school belongs. This integration of faith, values and life is the characteristic contribution of the Catholic school, not just to its pupils but to society. This is the special contribution which a Catholic school places at the service of those parents who wish to transmit their values to the upcoming generation, not as some external or only partially relevant addition to education.

In the past, the fundamental cultural community which provided the structural support for someone who believed was Irish society as such. Even with all its lacks, with its anti-clericalism and its superstitions, Irish society was genuinely impregnated with religious values. Today that is no longer so in the same way. Young people today need Christian communities where they can experience the support of peers with similar interests and experiences. Without such support the young person will be gobbled up in the centrifugal spin of a pluralism without an anchor.

The Catholic school must not, however, become a ghetto or an illusory safe haven. The young person has to be led to face the real world and to survive and indeed flourish there. Christianity can never be exclusivist or elitist. This means concretely that a Catholic school, while maintaining its specific ethos, can and should be welcoming of others who wish to explore that ethos, or who share some dimensions of it or who wish to critically engage with it. But for that to work the ethos must be there and must be strong and part of the real world of the school community. If there is no strong ethos to confront and be confronted with then the adolescent will end up without challenge.

The vision of education which I propose for the Catholic school involves a much more intense relationship between educator and student than might normally be envisaged. It might seem difficult to achieve within the busy curriculum of a modern-day Irish school. But the key contributors to successful Irish education in the past, when physical structures were definitely poorer and class numbers were even larger, were those extraordinary teachers who transmitted a passion for learning and an integrated vision of what guided their own lives. This cohesion gave our country the edge in creativity and innovative capacity needed for a modern knowledge-based society and economy.

When many of our most successful figures in Irish life are asked to identify a teacher who changed their lives, then it is almost invariably not just a teacher who taught maths or physics well, but a teacher who engaged directly with a young person regarding deeper dimensions of their talent and identity.

The real heart of a Catholic school is and must be that coherent, integrated vision of the meaning of life, based on belief in a God who is love, which the finds an echo in a community of believers who reflect that vision of life in their lives. Without that coherent commitment the originality of the Catholic school is lost.

I believe that the Constitution of Ireland places an obligation on the State, when it provides aid to schools under the management of religious denominations, to foster and support the originality of the ethos of these schools and to respect their legitimate autonomy. The State provides financial aid to such schools, but they are not simply State schools. This is in some sense a unique situation which requires a spirit of cooperation and understanding on both sides for it to bring optimum results.

Looking at some court cases regarding schools in the past weeks, I am struck by the fact that some sectors in government are quick in questions of legal litigation to defer to the sole role and responsibility of the religious Patron, whereas in other matters there is a tendency of other sectors of government to act as if the State was the exclusive owner of such schools and that such schools would have to subordinate their religious ethos to being State schools. Our unique model requires a unique mindset of cooperation for it to work best.

The Catholic school will only be able to carry out its specific role if there are viable alternatives for parents who wish to send their children to schools inspired by other philosophies. The demand is there. The delay in provision of such alternative models has made true choice difficult for such parents and indeed for many teachers. It also makes it more difficult for Catholic schools to maintain their specific identity and bring their specific contribution to a pluralist society.

Pluralism in religious belief has now entered into a new chapter in its history in Ireland. What is the place of the Catholic school in today’s Ireland where religious diversity is growing? Is the Catholic school divisive? Is it possible in a pluralist society to talk about truth? In a religiously pluralist society does the fact of there apparently being many “truths” mean that we have to banish all discussion of truth to the private sphere? I do not believe so.

Dialogue does not mean abandoning identity. Identity within a specific religious tradition today must also be one open to and respectful of other religious traditions and of those who do not hold any religious faith.

I am happy to see the emergence of a new model of patronage linked with the VEC in North Dublin. I am happy to have been able to play the role of midwife in delivering the first such school, through offering my temporary Patronage to a non-Catholic school while alternative patronage models could be finalised. Like any midwife, I am happy now to see that child grow and take on its own life-style. Not only am I happy, but I am hopeful that this and other schools according to this model will become schools marked by educational excellence. That will be the key to their success. Some have expressed that fear the new “State school” may end up having to take in just those who have not made it elsewhere. The way to avoid this is to ensure that each school is one to which any parent in the community would be happy to send their child.

I believe however that it would be utopian to think that there will ever be a single school model to which all children would be sent indiscriminately. Totally centralised, unified models of education rarely work and they have rarely existed in their pure form. If we are honest, they did not even exist in totalitarian communist regimes. One of the better hotels I stayed in in recent times had been a private clinic for leaders of the local communist party. If those who talked an ideology of equality looked after their health separately, you can be sure that they also looked after their children in the same way.

Pluralism of providers can indeed add edge to quality in education through competition. Pluralism of patrons has been crucial in sustaining a vital Church of Ireland and protestant community which in its turn makes a significant contribution to diversity in Ireland.

In many countries where there are broad state school systems, Catholic schools still exist and flourish and are regarded as being in the forefront in providing quality education. In many inner-city areas in the United States the Catholic education system is the one which really offers opportunity to the poor and members of minority communities.

There is no evidence that a totally “religiously neutral secularist society” is the best space in which to foster dialogue between different cultures and religions. France, which has perhaps the most secularised school system in Europe, has been particularly marked by racial tensions. There is indeed a sense in which, when it comes down to religious diversity, a more secularist society may not be the best one to be able to understand and guide the phenomenon of religious diversity. There are forms of secular society in which hostility to religious values forces religious groups into a dangerously narrow perception of their culture and thus sharpens religious differences and misunderstandings in a pluralist society.

I regard religious education as a positive contribution to the formation of young people to live in a truly pluralist world. This is why I would hope that in any form of State primary school, as opposed to private patronage models, religious education according to the wishes of parents would find an appropriate place in the normal curriculum.

In widening the presence of different forms of patronage it is important that all patron bodies be treated on the same level and be challenged to be models of accepting diversity. There should be parity with regard to facilities, class size, the number of streams, so that no one form of school is allowed to become more elitist and less open to diversity. All patron bodies should receive appropriate financial and technical support to help them carry out their patronage and management services for the good of all.

Ethnic minority does not equal non-religious. There is a tendency to forget that the multi-cultural New Ireland of today is perhaps more religious then its immediate predecessor. Immigrants have brought with them not a more secular society but religious revival. The majority of our current immigrant population appears to be Roman Catholic, and let it be said not just white Roman Catholic. These immigrants have brought enrichment not just to our labour market and to Irish culture but also to our parishes and faith communities.

Immigrants of other Christian Churches have equally enhanced and brought numerical increase to existing Christian denominations or have brought a completely new dimension to the Christian life of our country, such as that of the free African Church communities. Ireland now also has for the first time strong Orthodox communities. We now have large Islamic worship communities.

When I visited our Dublin Islamic communities, I was constantly thanked for the manner in which Catholic schools provide a tolerant religious environment to which Islamic parents are happy to entrust their children. They do not want to send their children to a school which has no religious ethos.

Ireland is going to have to face a very different religious and ethnic demography in the years to come. Demography is a mathematical science but a mathematical science which studies free and at times not easily predictable human choices. To fully understand our pluralist Ireland we need much more research data and much more differentiated research data. We need to look at all the factors involved. What are the factors which are leading to a concentration of immigrants in certain areas? Why is it that some parishes have large concentration of ethnic diversity and others with very similar socio-economic backgrounds have almost none? Many of the factors leading to an unbalanced concentration and possible ghettoes are not educational factors and you cannot expect schools to address them on their own.

The natural desire of immigrants to be close to their own is at times being hijacked by the mechanisms of our property market which can drive those on subsidized rents or with limited ability to pay rent to congregate in certain areas or even to move rapidly from one area to another. Ghetto schools, which we all wish to avoid, are rarely just the fruits of bad educational policies, but of a range of other policies which create social ghettoes for which the school cannot not be held to blame.

I have no ambition to be patron of Catholic primary schools beyond the number required to respond to the desire of parents who wish their children to attend such schools. I believe that ways can be found to expand the role of other patronage models, where such demand exists, through a form of structured divestment by the Catholic patron, which recognises the rights and interests of all parties. It would flow, as I see it, from a gradual movement of children and teachers towards differing schools in an area, each of which would evolve towards the ethos of a particular patron. In Dublin, patterns of school choice are already marked by great mobility. I believe that still more research needs to be done in this area. Social engineering is a precarious science and there are many values which have to be appraised together in coming to a decision. I hope that this Conference will spark ongoing constructive debate around the issue.

On the other hand, I have no hesitation in stressing the contribution which the Catholic schools system has made to education in Ireland and to repeat that Catholic Education has no intention of going away but of remaining on as a creative partner alongside others in seeking to play a changed but still significant role in the future of Irish education.