Church Involvement in Community and Comprehensive Schools

27 Mar 2009

27 March 2009

Church Involvement in Community and Comprehensive Schools

Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools Convention 27 March 2009

Paper presented on behalf of Bishop Leo O’Reilly by Father Francis Duffy, Chancellor and Diocesan Secretary of the Diocese of Kilmore

I come from near Cootehill in County Cavan where the location of the Comprehensive school was the very first revealed back in 1963. I understand the revelation came by way of a leak which, naturally, did not greatly please the then Minister for Education, Dr. Patrick Hillery. It was one of five Comprehensives that were to open in 1966. It was a groundbreaking development and it eased the way for the Community schools which came later.

Church Involvement in Comprehensive Schools

Church involvement in Community and Comprehensive schools goes back to the beginning of both. In the case of Comprehensive schools it is specifically mentioned in the press announcement of Comprehensive schools in 1963 by Minister Hillery. In the passage I am about to quote he is speaking about the areas where the new schools are to be located:

In the areas concerned the vast majority or perhaps all of the pupils will be Catholic and having regard to the rights of parents, who in relation to the fundamental principles of education are represented by the Church, and in view of the Church’s teaching authority, I have had consultation, which is proceeding, with the Catholic hierarchy on the management of these schools. I am satisfied that it will be possible in each case to constitute a committee of management which will be acceptable to all the interested parties. In this regard I would add that a proposal for the provision of a Comprehensive school of this kind for Protestants, if related to a suitable region, would be welcomed by me.

As we know, the invitation to the Protestant school community was accepted so we now have Comprehensive schools of both denominations. Although the Comprehensive Schools are denominational in law they are multi-denominational in enrolment and by most other criteria that might be applied. At least that is true of the Comprehensive schools in our diocese of Kilmore, and I have no reason to believe that it is very different elsewhere. The original committees of management consisted of three members, the Chair nominated by the religious authority and the others by the VEC and the DES respectively. The new Boards introduced in 2005 have of course been expanded to eight or nine members, bringing them more into line with Boards of Management in other sectors. The ninth member is co-opted and it is recommended in the endorsement to the Deed of Trust that this ninth member be chosen to represent any significant religious minority that may be represented in the school.

Community Schools

The initial document announcing the introduction of Community schools was published in 1970. It envisaged that these schools would result from the amalgamation of the existing Vocational school and the existing denominational Secondary school or schools in many towns around the country. The vast majority of these denominational Secondary schools were run by Religious Congregations. The negotiations on the Deed of Trust took all of ten years to complete. What emerged gave rights and responsibilities to the school authorities and, in the areas of religious education and the nomination of a Chaplain, to the local Bishop.

Church Involvement

The Community school sector has been very successful. I know that from first hand because I was a Community school chaplain in Bailieborough, Co. Cavan for seven years. I think it would be acknowledged by all that the Church, mainly through the Religious Congregations, made a significant contribution to that success. The Religious brought to the new school concept their long traditions and experience in education and the esteem in which they were held for their schools around the country. They also made a financial contribution to the building costs in the early days. They took their places on the Boards of Management, Selections Committees, staffs of the Community schools and supported them in many undocumented ways. I realise that some of the new Schools Trusts that the Religious are putting in place may not include the Community schools within their remit, but others do, most enthusiastically.

The Reasons for Church Involvement

The Church’s involvement in Community schools and to some extent also in Comprehensive schools was, most obviously, to continue the traditions that the Religious Congregations and others had built up in schools that were there beforehand. These traditions obviously enshrined things like Christian values, the teaching of the faith, formation of young people in the faith and their pastoral care. But the Church presence in the schools, embodied in the Church representatives on the Board of Management, the Religious on the staff, the chaplain and other staff,  that presence enshrines above all a particular approach to education, a philosophy of education which we believe makes an irreplaceable contribution to any education system.

The ‘why’ of the Church’s involvement in Community and Comprehensive schools goes back ultimately to the mission the Church received from Christ to go and teach all nations. Education has been central to the Church’s mission since the beginning. It has found different expression in different eras. We had the monastic schools in the middle of the first millennium here in Ireland. We had the great scholastic centres of learning in Europe in the middle ages. Even today there are few countries in the world – outside of totalitarian states – where there is not a vibrant Catholic schools sector.

Philosophy of Education

Every education system operates out of a philosophy of education. If it claims not to it is either deluded or trying to delude others. The Catholic philosophy of education is rooted in an understanding of the human person as someone of enormous dignity and potential. Each person has an infinite value and an eternal destiny. This dignity and destiny are rooted in faith that each one is created in the image of God. Each one is invited into fellowship with Christ who came ‘that we might have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). If I may quote the 2008 pastoral letter Vision 08 of the Irish Bishops: “What is entailed here is not only the fullest human flourishing in this world but a hope for the world to come.” We believe that human life is too precious to be reduced to purely material or merely present concerns. It is about the big picture and about a hope that gives meaning and purpose to all our human strivings.

There are many other elements in this philosophy of education which I have not time to go into here. But if I may mention just one that I think is of great relevance to our present topic, and that is community. The Pastoral Letter that I already quoted also claims that ‘education can be carried out authentically only in a relational and community context’. About ten years ago Matthew Feheny wrote an essay on the future of the Catholic school from an Irish perspective. He looked at research on the success of Catholic schools in America, England and Australia. Referring to the American experience specifically he pointed out that their success was due not so much to better teaching of secular subjects but “rather that Catholic schools are characterised by an atmosphere of pastoral care and a deliberate attempt to create community.” In all three countries he found that Catholic schools “were found to be especially successful in creating school communities out of educational institutions. This success is even more striking with children in deprived communities” (From Ideal to Action, pp. 211, 217).

Having worked as a Chaplain in a Community School I can testify to the central place of pastoral care in the school and a particular concern for those students who are most vunerable. I think it is worth reflecting on why the schools in this sector, which is essentially a state sector of education, are so different and so much more successful than State schools in England or America or Australia. I would suggest that the reason is the philosophy of education on which these schools are founded and on which they operate. That philosophy is quite different from that of State schools elsewhere which are generally inspired by a secular philosophy of education and one which generally excludes the dimension of faith. In my opinion it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the explanation of the difference in Ireland is that the Churches here have helped to shape that philosophy and to put it into practice in the life of the school.  And if they have it is not only because of the Trustees or the Boards of Management or the Religious in the schools or the Chaplains. I think it has also been due to the principals, the teachers and parents, the vast majority of whom, especially in the formative years of the sector, imbibed that educational philosophy during their own years in school. And I believe that the educational experience the schools offer is infinitely richer as a result.

The Church’s involvement is dependent ultimately on the parents of the children who attend the schools. The Minister’s statement that I quoted, announcing the Comprehensive schools in 1963, justifies the Church’s involvement in the new schools by the fact that the vast majority of the pupils were Catholic. Even though these schools were being directly provided by the State the parents had the right to have their religious convictions recognised in the kind of school their children would attend. This right is acknowledged in the Constitution and in many international legal instruments like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. So Church involvement in Community and Comprehensive schools is rooted ultimately in the rights of parents and parents will still be there representing the Church even if in the future when there are fewer Religious to do so.

Religious Education and Chaplaincy

The arrangements for Religious Education and for the appointment of a Chaplain in Community schools are expressed from a Catholic position, reflecting the time when these documents were drawn up and agreed. As you know, the payment of Chaplains in Community schools was challenged in the courts as constituting the endowment of religion. The Supreme Court ruled that this was not so and that the State was entitled to continue the payment of Chaplains. Both the Protestant and Catholic Churches were defendants in that case, along with the Minister for Education. In recent years the Bishops engaged in long discussions with ACCS in drawing up an agreement on the appointment of Chaplains to bring the arrangements into line with employment law.

Even when the Deed of Trust was being negotiated, it was recognised that there could be pupils and indeed teachers in the schools from different religious traditions. It was considered important by the negotiators for the Church side that the clause would be inserted in the Articles of Management (par 7(e) which states that ‘a teacher shall not advertently and consistently seek to undermine the religious belief or practice of any pupil in the school’. This stipulation sill holds and applies to the Catholic pupils as well as to all others.

The Role of Trustees

The Guidelines on the Role of Trustees in Community Schools published by ACCS in 2004 has been a major service to all of us who have been given that role. This brief document outlines very clearly the distinction between management and trustee roles and states very concisely what the Trustees responsibilities are. It draws attention to the unique position of the Community schools in having joint trusteeship, the challenges that this poses for exercising trustee responsibilities, and it suggests a means to exercise this joint responsibility effectively and efficiently. The means proposed is for the trustees to appoint a person who will act as a Liaison Trustee in all communications between the Board of Management and the Trustees.

As a Trustee of a Community School and two Comprehensive Schools in the diocese of Kilmore – with another Community School in the pipeline –  I would have to be the first to admit that my involvement in the schools has not been all that is envisaged in the Guidelines. The ‘Checklist for Trustees’ on page 16 of the Guidelines outlines thirteen areas where action is required by the Trustees, either jointly or singly. Similarly, the ‘Checklist of Responsibilities of the Board of Management to the Trustees’ on page 18 mentions ten areas of responsibility and accountability. The link between the Principal, the Board of Management and the Trustees is important for the well-being of the school. The Principal needs the support of a Board which is aware of its responsibilities and is capable of exercising them. The Board in turn needs the support of Trustees who are aware of their responsibilities and have some means of discharging them. There is an obvious need for training for Board members, not just in management matters, which I am aware is already being provided by ACCS, but also in matters relating to Trusteeship. There is also need for regular, though not necessarily very frequent, contact between Trustees and Boards. From the point of view of Church involvement it is incumbent on the Church Trustees to ensure that their nominees to the Board receive adequate preparation and training to make them aware of their responsibilities. Otherwise the Church’s contribution to the ethos of the school and the ethos itself may be diminished. In the absence of Church representatives on the Board who understand their rights and responsibilities the service of the school to the religious education and formation of the Catholic pupils or pupils of other denominations may suffer and the overall educational experience of the students may be affected. The first and most urgent task in this area, where that has not already been tackled, it that of formulating an ethos for each school in the sector.


The Church’s involvement in Community schools is rooted very much in their history. It is aimed at being faithful to the founding intention of the school in each case, and that in nearly every case, was to provide a school which would continue to provide an education for the pupils of the amalgamated schools which would reflect what was best and most central in the ethos of the different schools concerned. So if the new school was amalgamated from two denominational schools and a vocational school, as was typically the case, the new school should respect the denominational ethos of the voluntary schools and also the multi-denominational ethos of the vocational school. In practice this meant that Community schools were and are multi-denominational.


The title multi-denominational is being claimed by all sorts of schools nowadays, simply on the basis that they are open to people of any faith or religion, or none. If that were the case most Catholic schools could claim to be multi-denominational. However, to be genuinely multi-denominational, a school must not only have an open admissions policy, but must also provide for the needs of the different denominations in the school as far as practicable. A school that rules out religious instruction from its timetable is more properly called non-denominational for the simple reason that it does not recognise or acknowledge denominational differences or cater for them. My own experience of working in a Community school was that there was denominational instruction for the Catholic students who were in the vast majority, but also for the Protestant students who were a minority.

Going back to the founding intentions, I think it is important that the VEC bring to the discussion of ethos its tradition and experience of providing multi-denominational schooling which has always been very respectful of different religious traditions in schools. I am conscious that in a Community School such as I had the privilege to work in, where there was a significant minority of Protestant pupils, it would be desirable for that community to have some representation on the Board of Management. I think this could be achieved by the VEC nominating a member of the minority community to the board as one of their three nominees.

Trustee Forum

The recent establishment of the National Trustee Forum is a welcome step which will ensure that the Trustee interests in Community and Comprehensive schools are represented and that there is a channel of communication with the Department of Education and Science for speaking on behalf of these schools. It is clearly necessary to have a Trustee body of this kind, not only to co-ordinate the views of Trustee interests in existing schools, but also to plan strategically and to advocate the establishment of new schools.

Figures, relating to the establishment of new schools between 1992 and 2007, show that 31 new second level schools were established throughout the country during that time. 23 of those were either Vocational Schools or Community Colleges under the VEC. Indeed some of these are called Community Colleges but are not entitled to that name as they are non-designated, do not have Church representatives on their boards nor an ex-quota paid chaplain.  There were only 3 new community schools, 3 under An Foras Patrúnachta, and 2 Voluntary Secondary Schools. Three (3) new schools at the planning stage in 2008 were all Community Colleges under the VEC.

Table I

Completely New Schools (Second Level) 1992-2007
Patron Body Number of Schools
(a) VEC 23
[At planning stage 3 ]
(b) Community School 3
(c) An Foras Patrúnachta 3
(d) Voluntary Secondary 2 (1 since closed)
Total 31

Where new schools resulted from an amalgamation of existing schools the Community school sector did better. Figures, for the period 2000-2007, show that 19 amalgamations involving 27 Catholic Secondary Schools and 13 Vocational schools resulted in 9 Community Schools and 1 Comprehensive school, 5 VEC Community Colleges, and 4 Catholic Voluntary Schools.

Table II

New Schools Resulting from Amalgamation 2000-2007
Patron Body Number of Schools
(a) Catholic Secondary 27
(b) VEC (Vocational Schools) 13
Total 40
(a) Catholic Secondary 4
(b) VEC 5
(c) Community and Comprehensive 10 (9+1)
Total 19

What is striking here is that both the Voluntary Secondary School Sector and the Community and Comprehensive sector are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to establishing new second level schools. There seems to be an assumption in the Department of Education and Science that all new post-primary schools will be VEC schools as a matter of normal practice. This is an assumption which needs to be challenged and it has been challenged recently in a paper produced by the management body for Voluntary Secondary Schools.

However, the weakness in both these sectors, the Voluntary and the Community and Comprehensive, is the lack of a strong unified voice at Trustee level for each sector to represent their interests with the DES. The establishment of the National Trustee Forum is a major step forward in remedying this lack in your sector. However, it is anomalous that this body depended on the ACCS to establish it and continues to depend on it for secretarial and administrative services. I believe that, despite the straitened circumstances of our finances, we have to ensure that the National Trustee Forum is adequately resourced to discharge its functions. These functions are imposed on it not only by the terms of the Deed of Trust but also by the Education Act 1998 which clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities of Trustees in the system.

A further requirement in relation to school provision at second level, which we have already called for, is the introduction of a system which will enable different patron and trustee bodies to apply to provide schools in developing areas and ensure some measure of fairness and equity in their allocation.  Such a body has existed at primary level for several years, but is currently under review.

Primary Schools

Just as I was finishing the preparation of this paper I became aware of a memo from the National Trust Forum to be circulated at the AGM. Its title is “The Relevance of the Community and Comprehensive School Model of Trusteeship for primary schools.” It is an interesting document and there are many things in it I agree with. In response to one of the questions on page 2 of the memo: ‘To what extent are Church authorities committed to a continued responsibility for the provision of primary education?’, I would repeat what we said in our policy document of October 2007: “The Catholic Church is committed to providing Catholic schools to cater for the needs of parents who wish their children to have a Catholic education.”  That is a very clear statement of our ongoing commitment to education.

However, I recognise, as that document did, that “the Church should not be left with the task of providing for the educational needs of the whole community”. The changed demographics and cultural profile of our society in recent times create a requirement for more diversity in provision, not less. The shared patronage model provided by the Community school has much to recommend it at primary level.  As long as the introduction of such a model at primary level is not seen as a one-size-fits-all solution to primary school provision I would welcome it.

Notes for Editors

Bishop Leo O’Reilly, is Bishop of Kilmore and is Chair of the Education Commission and Co-chair of the Strategic Task Group on Education

Further information:

Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 233 7797