Cardinal Brady’s address at launch of ‘Catholic Education for All’ Belfast

13 Feb 2012

Address by Cardinal Seán Brady, at launch of the post-primary review strategic report ‘Catholic Education for All’ Saint Mary’s University College, Belfast

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Trustees of Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland, I want to thank you for being here today. We welcome your interest in the publication of this strategic report entitled Catholic Education for All, by the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education. We value your assistance in making its contents as widely known as possible, especially to those thousands of individuals, families and others who will have an interest its recommendations.

These recommendations represent proposals for potentially the most comprehensive and radical reorganization of Catholic Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland ever to be undertaken. This strategic report will help set the fundamental direction for the administration of Catholic education here for decades to come.

I want to thank those who have prepared this report: the 16 project area teams, CCMS, NICCE, the administration and support staff involved and Stakeholder Communications. In particular, I want to thank those who contributed in such large numbers to the process of consultation that has informed the report’s recommendations. The involvement of so many parents, teachers, pupils, communities and other stakeholders has been vital in ensuring the widest possible range of views, insights and needs have been taken into account.

Since we launched our original consultation in 2010 more than 28,000 respondents have given their views. This is an extraordinary level of participation, by any standard. The publication of this report today is the outcome of that inclusive and open consultation process. The report marks a further and hugely significant contribution to the reshaping of Catholic post-primary education. It also reflects a huge level of commitment to ensuring the continued provision of high quality Catholic education across Northern Ireland and within local communities.

Our Catholic schools are and always have been deeply rooted in and highly valued by the local communities which they serve. Catholic Schools do not exist in isolation but as active participants in the community and society of which they are a part. They offer an education rooted in the dignity of every person made in the image and likeness of God. They promote a vision of human relationships and society based on the love, justice, peace and good will lived and taught by Jesus in the Gospels.

As Trustees we are very conscious of our responsibility to parents, children and wider society to ensure that Catholic schools provide an ethos based on these values and an excellent educational opportunity for all. We are also conscious of our responsibility to ensure that Catholic schools contribute to the development of a shared society where diversity is cherished and celebrated. These values have guided our approach to this report and its recommendations. In the consultation that will follow publication of this report, the Trustees of Catholic schools are open to exploring new and creative possibilities for greater collaboration and sharing of resources with other education stakeholders, on a shared faith basis. For too long, the debate about ‘integrating’ education in Northern Ireland has given priority to one particular model of sharing and integration. Other models are possible and where satisfactory governance, ownership and ethos arrangements can be agreed, Catholic Trustees in Northern Ireland remain open to this possibility.

These are immensely challenging times for all schools in Northern Ireland. Widening curriculum demands, the demographic downturn at post-primary level and the dramatic change in our public finances mean that hard decisions have to be made. Naturally, we would all prefer things to stay as they are. No one likes to have to make hard decisions, especially about schools that are such treasured and important resources in local communities. The hard reality is, however, that change cannot be avoided. What is uppermost in the recommendations being published today is that they are aimed at providing a better and more sustainable education for all pupils in Catholic schools in a given area: they represent change for the better, not just change for change’s sake.

As a Catholic community we are, in the words of the theme for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress to be celebrated in Dublin this June, a community that draws life, meaning and purpose from our communion with Christ and with one another. We are a community that does not believe that any one Catholic school can operate in isolation from the needs of the whole family of Catholic schools. Consideration for the rights and needs of all will demand the best use of available resources. This will inevitably require genuine cooperation, the sharing of resources and agreed admittance criteria within the family of Catholic schools. In a time of decreasing numbers of second level pupils and widening curricular demands, it is totally unacceptable that some Grammar schools are in effect becoming all ability schools, while local secondary schools bear all the negative consequences of educational change. What is happening in some areas is in fact the absorption ‘by stealth’ of secondary schools by local Grammar schools who are changing their entrance grade requirements to keep their numbers up. What is being proposed today seeks to address this injustice by ensuring more effective planning is put in place for the best long-term educational outcome in each area.  Critical to the success of this planning will be a willingness on the part of all to take into account the overall long-term prospects for sustainable Catholic education in a given area.

Bishop McKeown will address this matter in more detail. For my part, on behalf of all Trustees, I urge Catholic Schools and local communities to give these proposals a fair hearing. They are set before you for the common good of all pupils in your area so that the best possible educational outcomes can be achieved.

In commending this report to you today with enthusiasm and hope for the sustainable future it promises for all children in Catholic schools, let me thank you again for your presence here. I also want to thank Professor Peter Finn and the staff of Saint Mary’s University College for their hospitality and for making us so welcome here this morning for this important launch.

I now hand you over to Mr Gerry Lundy, who will outline the key recommendations of the Report.