Address of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to the Irish Primary Principals Network

16 Jun 2009

16 June 2009

Address of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to the Irish Primary Principals Network

One of the many anxieties I had returning from Geneva to become Archbishop of Dublin was my lack of preparation for working in the area of education. I had worked in only one parish in Dublin many years earlier and it had no schools, something which the Parish Priest claimed was a very special grace.

Today there are 477 Catholic Primary Schools in the Diocese of Dublin, under the patronage of the Archbishop. In these schools there are 8,298 teachers and 127,814 pupils. The majority of the schools are parish schools (347). The others categories are: 62 schools run by Religious Congregations (with a total of 40 religious teaching between all of them), 21 Scoileanna Lán Gaelacha which teach through the medium of Irish, 26 Special Schools for pupils with special needs and 5 Hospital Schools. There are also 16 private schools.

The first thing I have to say is that, in general, these are really great schools. Yes, there are problems and schools with problems. But the problems are remarkably few.

Where schools are excellent this is due to a great extent to great teachers and I have to say that I am especially impressed by the calibre of our younger teachers, those graduating in recent years. They are genuinely dedicated and it is wonderful to see just how many of these young teachers opt to work in the more disadvantaged areas. Great credit is due to the formation they receive which builds on their genuine idealism. As principals and as teachers who have worked in education in difficult times in the past, you can rest assured that the next generation of teachers will render your efforts honour by their commitment.

Schools are even more excellent where the bond between parents and school and community work well. The Irish educational system has the great advantage that it has the possibility to be genuinely community-based and is freed from the sort of restrictive centralised bureaucracy, at times highly ideologised, which is the case in some other countries. In saying this I hasten to add that I am not speaking about our Department of Education and its officials.

Schools belong to communities and schools construct community. The remarkably good and rapid integration of newly arrived ethnic groups in the Dublin area has been a smooth process and once again the merit for this, I would say, must go in the first place to our schools.

There are problems. There are problem teachers, there are financial problems, some schools suffer because of very poor buildings, there are difficulties for boards of management and of the support that such boards receive. It is important that Boards of Management receive the training and support they deserve and where necessary that Patrons provide specialised back-up to the Boards in complex areas such as management, legal advice and advice on employment law. But the advantage of having local community input through the boards of management is irreplaceable.

You as school principals and vice principals may feel that you are the group which fall between all the stools and are the ones who have to do your job and in addition to pick up all the bits that no one else does. There are indications that fewer teachers are applying for positions of responsibility in school because of the lack of support that they receive. This evening I would like particularly to thank you for your tireless work but also to recognise that there are limits on the amount of “tirelessness” that should be required of you. Once again, if you are required to do an important job in society, you are entitled to receive the back up that you require.

All in all I think that the primary school system in the Archdiocese of Dublin is in good shape and is certainly not the kind of retrograde, ideologically divisive, sectarian system that some would characterise it as.

That said, it is clear that a system in which 92% of all primary schools is managed by the Roman Catholic Church in a country where the Catholic population is 87% is certainly not tenable. This is not something that I say this evening for the first time. It has been a constant theme that I have tried to hammer home and I believe that we have to come to address this question openly and in a constructive manner much more rapidly than we have do in the past.

Some would say that these schools should simply be handed over to the State and the Church should return to its sacristies. That is the viewpoint of some but it is a viewpoint which may not brush aside the rights recognised by the Constitution of Ireland to parents and to religious denominations.

I believe that Catholic education has its place in Irish society today and will continue to maintain its place into the future. That is not to say that things should not change. The current almost monopoly is a historical hangover that doesn’t reflect the realities of the times and is, in addition, in many ways detrimental to the possibility of maintaining a true Catholic identity in Catholic schools. 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 Catholic school should be clearly Catholic, but the Catholic School should not be or be seen to be a Catholic enclave cut off from the realities of society, much less an enclave of elitism. The young person has to be led to face the real world and to survive and indeed flourish there. But if there is no strong ethos to confront and be confronted with then the adolescent will end of without challenge.

In the Dublin area, as you know, a very large number of parents of different religions deliberately send their children to Catholic schools because they wish their children to be educated within a religious environment. A Catholic school must be open to children of a variety of backgrounds when parents wish their children to attend such a school. However a Catholic school must be one with a real Catholic ethos, just as one expects that Church of Ireland Schools or schools for the Islamic community be able to maintain their distinctive ethos. Indeed Church of Ireland schools are an important dimension for ensuring that a unique and valued sector of the Irish community can retain and foster its diversity.

What are the models for the future? The long-term objectives are the easiest to set out. One could see a future in which provision would be made for Catholic parents who wish their children to attend Catholic schools by having an appropriate number of such schools within broad catchments areas which would include other patron models, including schools managed by local authorities or patron bodies like Educate Together. This would allow the possibility of schools for Catholic parents, an appropriate environment for teachers who wish to work in such a Catholic school ethos and ensure that teachers who do not wish to be involved in religious education can work in a school climate which they prefer.

Another possibility is that which exists in many European countries of a predominantly State managed system with the possibility for religious instruction within the school, by teachers recognised by the relative religious authority on the basis of a clearly defined modus vivendi between Church and State at the appropriate level. However, there are very few countries which do not effectively have variety of school patronage models. Uniformity of school models do not necessarily result in equal treatment and access for pupils.

We need to move forward with a new vision. The long-term objective can be clearly indicated, the problem however is how to move to that situation while respecting the various interests involved and especially the good of children.

Some would say that a mixed system as I envisaged would end up being divisive and also costly, as it would involve duplication of resources. Others fear that such a mixed system would lead to forms of elitism. One can look at the experience in many parts of the world and see that the Catholic education system where it exists within a broader educational framework comes out very well on the level of educational excellence and of the integration of the educationally deprived. In many United States inner-cities the Catholic school system plays a huge role in providing education for the poor.

We already have a serious problem in Ireland about people opting out of diversity by sending their children to schools in which the percentage of ethnic variety and educational diversity remains low. I am not referring just to fee paying schools. I am referring to what is happening in cities and large town in which mobility offers some opportunity to opt for schools with smaller numbers on the outskirts of towns, rather than to schools that are local but ethically mixed. Even here I have to recognise that parents will inevitably send their child to the nearest best school available to them. This can result in an enhancement of the quality of such schools due to the higher level of motivation that such choice indicates. On the other hand, such movement can create a sort of “brain drain” which can deprive the local community of a pool of local talent which would have enriched the local school. Parents have the right to choose the school they consider best. But the exercise of rights must also incorporate concern for the common good and there are limits to what social engineering can achieve.

How do you move to a new situation? The danger is that it will be done by a sort of single-issue plebiscite, a panic reaction or a managed strategic action by one grouping. I believe that this is a process which should be protracted over a period of years by open consultations. This does not mean that we put off all decisions until we have the perfect vision. The perfect is almost always the enemy of the good. We have to make a start and move the debate on rapidly. At a time in which in this Archdiocese, we are working on new forms of parish interaction and cooperation, why can the conversation about the future of catholic schools not be integrated into such reflection which involves not just clergy but parish councils and management bodies. The Catholic school community should be generating its own debate in this area and not just reacting to others.

The challenges facing the educational system in Ireland today are such that I believe we need to work towards a National Forum on the future of education, with hearing sessions and public debate which involve the widest possible consultation with all interested groups, beginning with parents, and involving teachers and teacher organizations, the educational community, political parties, management and patron bodies. The leadership belongs in this area to government, but government should ensure that the true feelings of parents are fully listened to and respected.

Education is too important an issue for it to be left just to teachers, or just to the Department of Education, or just to one or other political or religious grouping. A solution based on the polemics of the moment is less likely to be successful is one which involves constructive reflection.

I was very much struck by an initiative taken by Pope Benedict XVI two years 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.

In the midst of all the day to day problems that we have to attend to, we need to be constantly asking ourselves the question: What is education about? And in the area of Catholic education we need to be asking the question: What is Catholic education fundamentally about? 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. Sadly the Ryan Report documents systemic failure in that commitment of love.

Over the years, the primary teachers of Ireland have made an enormous contribution to the passing on of the faith. It is the primary teachers in our Catholic schools who, with great dedication, prepare children for the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation and introduce them to knowledge of Jesus Christ, largely without more than tacit support from parents, many of whom may have lost real contact their own faith.

The support to schools from parishes varies from parish to parish. There are models of excellence. However because of demographic changes and growing mobility, often parish and school communities are increasingly no longer the same.

There is a concern among teachers that schools are not adequately supported in the responsibility of introducing children to the faith. This is in part due to an insecurity among priests as a consequence of sexual abuse scandals. In other cases, priests feel overburdened by management questions of Catholic schools and develop a tendency to retreat from schools altogether.

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 vital focus for fostering a climate of knowledge about various religions and about dialogue and mutual respect among different religious traditions. But there are limits to what a school can achieve and should be expected to achieve. Ireland is going to have a very different religious and ethnic demography in the years to come. To fully understand our pluralist Ireland we need much more differentiated scientific information.

There is no evidence that a totally “religiously neutral secularist society” is the best space in which to foster dialogue between religions. 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. 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 sharpen religious differences and misunderstanding of a pluralist society. What is important, I believe, is that we all address the situation with a sense of mutual knowledge and respect.

I would like to address one specific issue with regard to schools under Catholic patronage which has been the focus of attention in the days since the publication of the Ryan Report. The impression is at times being given that religiously run schools are somehow or other deficient in the matter of child protection structures and that children in such schools may be at risk of abuse because these schools are under Catholic patronage.

The State guidelines Children First operate in schools, in all schools. Catholic schools are obliged by the same guidelines and child protection practices as any other school and are subject to the same level of supervision as any other school. It is vital that teachers must be fully supported in implementing these State guidelines as teachers are almost always the first person outside the home to recognise when a child is unhappy and therefore possibly at risk.

I would also add that the Archdiocese of Dublin has strong child protection guidelines of its own, in line with those of the National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church, regarding all Church run activities. There is no question of Church guidelines supplanting much less weakening the level of protection which the State guidelines provide. It is important that there be cooperation between all those involved in Child safeguarding, as the experience that emerged from my unfortunately extensive understanding of the child abuse that took place in Dublin is that in many situations abuse would have been detected much earlier had such cooperation been more effective.

A basic principle of child safeguarding is allowing children to be heard. It is vital that an awareness of the issues among children be taught effectively and sensitively in every school and I would urge principals to ensure that this is the case.

This morning I celebrated the final confirmation for this season. Confirmations are a great occasion and a wonderful occasion for me to see the dedication of teachers in their work. I have seen over and over again entire staffrooms rejoice when things went well for some child who had personal or family problems. I see the great affection and respect that children have for their teachers and their admiration for their school principal.

Children today are asking questions at 12 years of age that we only thought about when we were 21. This makes asking the basic questions of what education is and what Catholic education is all the more urgent if we are to offer our young people the support they need to face the challenges of the world of the future with enthusiasm and confidence.

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