State must be school patron

State must be school patron

Thursday, 7th June 2007

You try your best to do everything right. You’ve got the mortgage, bought a house and started a family. Both yourself and your partner must work to make ends meet, and because the only house you could afford is far from the city, you spend long hours commuting. But so far you’ve managed to hold it all together.

And then the bombshell hits. There is no place in any local school for your child, now four years old and ready for junior infants. This is the reality facing hundreds of families in the country’s new fast-growing urban suburbs.

It is a crisis that has loomed for years. Some time ago, Minister for Education Mary Hanafin attempted to lay the blame on parents. They had selfishly moved into their new houses at the wrong time, unreasonably seeking immediate places for their children. How could schools respond to this kind of unexpected demand? she asked.

However, the real problem was instead the almost complete absence of any planning on the part of the Department of Education for new schools in areas where clear population trends indicated a huge need.

Last year, for instance, 200 children were reported as being without school places in the Dublin 15 area in the west of the city. This year, 90 children in the small catchment of Diswellstown (also in Dublin west) cannot get into any local school.

And they are only the tip of the iceberg.

The current crisis in Diswellstown has been blamed on the admissions policy of the local Catholic primary schools, which have given priority to children of that faith, thus excluding non-Catholic families.

This, however, is to miss the central problem. The simple reality is that the State does not consider that it has a duty to provide schools for our children. Instead, it relies on others to perform this function, paying them to do so but itself playing little part in how, when or where primary schools are established.

The Government defends its inaction in this area by quoting the Constitution. Incredibly, the entire basis for organisation of our primary education system relies on a single, three-letter word. The State has a constitutional duty to provide “for” the education of children, but not to provide that education itself in any direct way.

This particular phraseology was devised to allow various religious interests, particularly the Catholic Church, to continue to control the education of children. Consequently, what we have is a network of private institutions (otherwise known as national schools) fully funded by the State. They have substantial autonomy in how they manage their affairs, and quite understandably develop their plans in accordance with their own religious agendas.

What is now clear is that the sectoral priorities of the Catholic Church in terms of providing education for Catholic children are no longer a comfortable fit with the national needs,

What is also evident is that neither the department nor the Government is prepared to face this new reality. The decision to approach the Archbishop of Dublin to request that he act as an emergency patron for a new school in the Diswellstown area shows a mindset firmly stuck in an Ireland of the 1950s rather than the multifaith, multiethnic reality of today’s communities.

But again, rather than having necessarily any religious basis, that decision was most likely simply a reflection of the poverty of imagination of a Government department that has always taken a back seat to the denominational interests involved in education, thus divesting itself of primary responsibility.

This was illustrated recently in the attitude of the Minister to the issue of legal responsibility for the safety of children in school. It was nothing to do with the State, she argued firmly, but rather a matter for the management and patrons of national schools.

While the Minister has announced plans for a solitary new national school (also ironically in Diswellstown) to be managed directly by the State via the local Vocational Education Committee, this is a move so tentative and timid as to have little impact on the urgent need for centralised, structured planning to ensure that every child can be enrolled in a local school.

What is required is radical reform, which would entail the State taking full legal responsibility for the management of primary schools – in effect taking over the patronage role from the various church bodies. This need not entail either a dilution of the ethos of any particular school or indeed any reduction in the democratic structures already in place that involve parents and local community representatives in the running of schools.

What it simply means is that the State, for too long a largely silent and neglectful partner, would be forced to take its full share of responsibility for educating the nation’s children. Opinion surveys have shown a clear public preference for this, and the churches themselves are open to ideas of change.

It is time to drag the department, albeit kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.

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