Address by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Chairman of the Bishops’ Commission on Education, at the Parnell Summer School

13 Aug 2008

13 August 2008

Address by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Chairman of the Bishops’ Commission on Education, at the Parnell Summer School

“The main issues facing education in the years ahead”
  • Establish new body to consult with Patrons regarding the provision of schools at second level
  • Agreement needed between Department of Education and Patrons on lease details for new schools
  • Young people asked to consider religious life and priesthood as a vocation

I am delighted to attend and I thank Professor Mike Cronin, Academic Director, Centre for Irish Programmes at Boston College, for the invitation to speak at this the 2008 Parnell Summer School in the beautiful surroundings of Avondale House, Co Wicklow.

This year’s theme, Educating Ireland; its development; role of religious schooling; impact of the ‘New Irish’ and the politics of education could not be more topical, and on behalf of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, I welcome this opportunity to set out the Church’s current position within the wider education debate.

Before I directly address today’s theme, I wish to congratulate the Leaving Certificate students who are receiving their results as I speak. I hope that their hard work is rewarded and I wish them well in the months and years ahead.

The Minister for Education has today asked students to consider choosing courses in science, engineering and technology. Clearly our economy needs people with these skills. However, in this the “Year of Vocation” for the Catholic Church in Ireland, I would ask young men and women to consider the Religious Life and Priesthood as a Vocation option. I have no doubt that God is calling young women and men of this generation to give their lives to spreading the Gospel and our society needs this service too. My sincere hope and prayer is that they will hear this call.

Returning to today’s topic, the changes affecting Irish society set the agenda for the future of education on this island. To consider contemporary Irish society from the perspective of “Education and Religion” is to recognise the opportunities and to face one of the major challenges of contemporary Ireland. Education in 21st century Ireland should be trying to achieve a match between good education and the expectations of parents, children and today’s changed society.

The following are among the main issues facing the Catholic Church in terms of “Education and Religion”:

1. Provision for education in a Pluralist Society
2. The Rights of Parents
3. Ethos and Values in the day-to-day life of the School
4. Religion in the life of the State
5. Planning Education Provision

1. Provision for education in a Pluralist Society

Because of the history of educational provision in Ireland, schools have been in the ownership, for the most part, of the main churches. In the case of the Catholic Church this ownership has been held in trust by parishes, dioceses and religious congregations on behalf of the people whom the schools were established to serve. Until the late 1960s primary and second level education was provided almost entirely through Church owned schools. The preponderance of Catholic schools in the overall provision reflected the demographics of religious affiliation in the country and the wishes of parents for schools informed by a Catholic philosophy of education.

In the intervening forty years the introduction of new models of second level education e.g. comprehensive schools, community schools, community colleges and Gaelscoileanna, have meant that the percentage of children educated in Church run schools is now reduced to something over 50%. A similar diversification in education provision has begun more recently at primary level and will no doubt continue in order to meet the needs of parents who desire other schools for their children.

While Church schools operate according to a faith philosophy, they provide a public service and as such are entitled to State funding. Parents of other faiths and none are not precluded from choosing Catholic schools for their children if they so wish. In fact they are welcome to choose them. Other interested parties have the right to establish schools to meet the needs and wishes of a pluralist society.

Irish society is pluralist in make-up and accordingly the Irish education system must reflect this pluralism in its provision. It is for this reason that the Catholic Bishops of Ireland have consistently called for diversity in the education system, “one that includes several types of schools including denominational schools.” Such provision will honour the common good as “a pluralistic system fits a pluralistic population.” The Church has no desire to be the sole provider of education and, where the wishes of parents dictate, will play its part to assure the type of school that most appropriately meets the needs of parents and children

2. The Rights of Parents

Parents are the primary educators of children. The State supports parents in this role and rightly provides for education. While remaining faithful to the Principle of Subsidiarity, the State makes available schools according to parental wishes insofar as practicable. It is therefore the role of the State, through the Department of Education and Science, to provide the infrastructure for education and to regulate such provision within the State.

However, the State should always respect the rights of parents “to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art 26.3). It should recognise, as the United National International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) does, “the liberty of parents… to choose for their children schools… which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions” (Art. 13.3).

It might be argued that for the sake of social cohesion and the best use of resources the State should provide a common education for all and leave it to parents and churches to cater for religion and values. This kind of “one-size-fits-all” solution of educational provision may seem attractive and simple in form. However it is founded on a fallacy. There is no value-free education system. Every system is grounded in a set of values. A system which claims to be value-free is simply attempting to impose its values by stealth without acknowledging them.

Each pupil grows up in a family and in a society that lives by a set of values. It is by the appropriation of these values and choosing values for oneself that a young person arrives at mature adulthood. The school offers a locus where such a project is facilitated. To suggest that schools can be value free is disingenuous or naive. As Cardinal Brady pointed out when addressing the Primary Schools’ Principals Conference earlier this year, “Teaching value-free facts devoid of meaning and skill is an unsustainable and fundamentally flawed approach to education.”

3. Ethos and Values in the day-to- day life of the School

The history of Catholic schools in Ireland has been a history of inclusion and welcome. This continues to be the case. From the foundation of the State and indeed before, Catholic schools have provided education for all but especially for the poor and vulnerable. The ethos of our schools has been one where the dignity and rights of the individual are respected and promoted.

The schools are guided by the view that all of life’s experience is a window to the goodness and love of God. It is in developing right and respectful relationships with each other that young people grow as members of the local community and of society. Catholic schools encourage pupils to recognise and appropriate their own history and the tradition of the school. The schools view the pursuit of knowledge and the development of all the talents of the young as central to their formation and growth. This is the essence of promoting the common good.

In a pastoral letter on Catholic education, Vision 08, published in April of this year, the Irish Bishops’ Conference outlined the Church’s policy for Catholic schools in the coming years. There has been a broad welcome for the document by the State and the education partners. The Pastoral Letter is the result of a joint consultation with the partners in Catholic Education on the part of CORI and the Irish Bishops’ Conference. The document sets out a rich philosophy and theology of Catholic education in an accessible way. However it will remain mere words on paper, unless it is followed by a process that will make the theory a reality in the day to day lives of our schools. It is for this reason that a team is now working to engage all associated with Catholic schools in further reflection on the contents of Vision 08. The letter ends with a public invitation to dialogue about the best way of ensuring that our schools can develop in the years ahead. Today I wish to reiterate that invitation. It is crucial for the future of schools.

4. Religion in the life of the State

In the main, the objections to the State supporting denominational education are based on the erroneous concept of religion as a private matter and thus of concern to the person as an individual rather than as a member of society and the state. It is untenable to support this view of religion when one considers that the human person is social by nature and the search for truth, including religious truth, cannot be furthered purely as individuals.

Religious belief and religious belief systems are part of human life and in many instances define human society in its mode of living, its customs and its culture. Central to the human project is knowledge of one’s own religious beliefs and knowledge and respect for the beliefs of others. Without such knowledge and respect there is the constant danger of descent into fundamentalism at best and at worst serious conflict as caricatures of religious faith are pitted against each other.

It is therefore essential that an education in religious beliefs forms part of schooling. While there are many models as to how religious education is included in schooling it cannot be excluded from the education project.

5. Planning Education Provision

Whereas heretofore Irish educational planning has been characterised by an ad hoc and reactive approach, it will be necessary to plan carefully for the infrastructure and educational needs of the pupil cohort more proactively in the future. This is necessitated by a constantly changing and increasingly diverse school-going polutation. This issue was brought into sharp focus by the media at the beginning of the last school year when a lack of forward planning contributed to enrolment chaos for some schools. The joint publication this month by the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Environment, Heritage and local Government of A Code of Practice on the Provision of Schools is a welcome development in this area. We recognise the need for joined up infrastructural planning between the Department of Education, the Department of the Environment and the Planning Authorities.

However we have some concerns. The document states in section 6:
“Until relatively recently, schools were constructed on land provided by patron bodies … and the property was owned by the patron. Since 1999, the Department of Education and Science has moved to a model of site purchase and the lease of the building subsequently constructed to the patron.”

Our concerns are these: Firstly that the only mention of school patrons (who are after all the providers of education) in the entire document is in this brief paragraph which seems to relegate them to the past and seems to consign their role in school ownership to history. We trust this is not the case.

Our second concern is about the detail of the lease to patrons of these schools owned by the Department of Education and Science. The Department of Education in consultation with the patrons produced a draft lease agreement in 2004 and despite repeated approaches by Patrons and Management of schools since then a final lease has not been agreed and published. Its publication is all the more urgent in view of this new code of practice on planning.

The Patron bodies are the educational providers on the ground. They have served the State well in the past and we believe continue to serve it well. As key partners in education they need to be consulted on the provision of new schools. This is particularly true at second level where there is still no mechanism or protocol for consultation with patrons in relation to the provision of new schools as there is at primary level. One result of this has been that no new voluntary secondary schools had been established for almost a generation with the exception of two small Gael Colaisti under the patronage of An Foras Pátrúnachta. There seems to be a policy assumption in the Department of Education that every new school at second level should be multi-denominational.

The Catholic Church is committed to denominational education and intends to remain a provider for as long as parents choose Catholic schools.

Recent Catholic Church publications (“Catholic Primary Schools – A Policy for Provision into the Future” and “Vision 08 – A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland”) set forth the theological and philosophical reasons together with policy considerations for the Church’s involvement in education into the future. These position papers are now available on .


The Irish Times of Friday July 25th 2008 reported that in response to the progress report on Ireland the UN Committee on Human Rights “expressed concern that most primary schools were denominational and urged that alternative non-denominational primary education be available.”

The Catholic Church has made its position clear on this matter in our policy statement on Catholic Primary schools published in October 2007. In par 5.1 of this document we stated:

“As the Catholic Church accepts that there should be choice and diversity within the national education system, it believes that parents who desire schools under different patronage should, where possible, be facilitated in accessing them. In new centres of population it is incumbent upon the State to plan for the provision of schools 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.”

To its credit the Department of Education has begun to address this issue through its introduction of the additional model of school patronage. We welcome this initiative.

While it is important to address the concern expressed by the UN Committee, it is equally important to respect the rights of parents as expressed in recent surveys carried out by both the market research company Red C (March 2008) on behalf of the Iona Institute, and the Bishop’s Council for Research and Development entitled Factors Determining School Choice (April 2008). Both of these surveys found that for most parents the place of faith in education retains its importance and that there is overwhelming support for the principle of parental choice.

Three key findings of the survey commissioned by the Bishop’s Council for Research and Development on Factors Determining School Choice are:

  • 63% of respondents believe that the churches should continue to have a prominent role in the provision of primary schooling;
  • 70% stated that the religious education provided by the school is important; and,
  • 95% of respondents stated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their decision to send their child to the school they currently attend.

While surveys are important and have their role, our central concern is the Gospel values that underpin Catholic education. In the context of the debate on education that has raged in Ireland over the last number of years I feel that it is important to place on the record – unambiguously – what heretofore could be assumed but now needs to be expressly stated, namely, that the Catholic Church makes no apology for its ongoing presence in education delivery.

An informed debate on the shape of education provision is crucial to the future of our country. It has begun. The debate should be transparent and ought to reflect the complexity of the issues involved. As Chairman of the Bishops’ Commission on Education I warmly welcome it.


Further information:
Martin Long, Communications Director (086 172 7678)
Kathy Tynan, Communications Officer (086 817 5674)