03 May 2012

Future for Faith in Schools

The recent proposals from the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Plurality in the Private Sector make for depressing reading.

While I’m glad that Ruairí Quinn’s dream of half of Ireland’s primary schools being divested from religious patronage looks to have been given short shrift, I take no solace from the recommendation to abolish the requirement that schools should seek to inculcate Christian values, with each faith-based school henceforth being obliged to display images reflecting all the school’s students’ religious traditions

There can be no doubt that the increasing diversity of Ireland’s population and the large number of small schools across the country jointly pose serious challenges for our education system, but the Advisory Group’s suggested solutions seem unimaginative and shallow. They give no sign of a serious attempt to grapple with the real needs of the majority of Irish families or to place Ireland’s changing needs in a meaningful European context.

Irish education is regularly discussed in terms of a narrative that states that we are a diverse country, and as such should have an educational system that reflects that diversity. This narrative, which is repeated ad nauseam by the likes of Ruairí Quinn and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, doesn’t really follow, not least because modern Ireland isn’t nearly as diverse as we’d sometimes like to think it is.

In 1961, according to the census figures from that year, almost 95pc of people living in Ireland self-identified as Catholic; by 2011 the proportion of the Irish population self-identifying as Catholics had dropped to just below 85 per cent.

Catholics may make up a smaller proportion of the Irish population now than half a century ago, but a nation that identifies itself as 85pc Catholic is not a religiously diverse nation. Ireland in fact stands – in name if nothing else – with the likes of Italy, Poland, and Portugal as one of Europe’s most overwhelmingly Catholic countries.

This relative homogeneity makes all the more baffling the Advisory Group’s choice to look for inspiration to Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Northern Ireland in order to consider how religious education takes place within the primary education systems of a number of other European jurisdictions.

One might wonder why the Advisory Group considered only educational systems in historically Protestant countries, with Catholics being miniscule minorities in some of them. Granted, the Scandinavian countries – with high levels of notional affiliation to national Protestant churches – provide superficial parallels to Ireland’s situation, but none of these jurisdictions are really comparable to Ireland, where the education system has long been rooted in a specifically Catholic idea of education.

Aside from the Advisory Group’s curious disregard for how historically and still largely Catholic countries have handled the challenges posed by increasing religious diversity, I cannot fathom why they didn’t consider how England and Wales – a genuinely diverse jurisdiction – approaches such issues. They may offer answers less simplistic than those proposed by Ruairí Quinn and the Advisory Group.

Two months ago, Baroness Warsi, the Muslim co-chairperson of Britain’s Conservative Party, gave a speech in the Vatican where she spoke of how she had chosen to send her daughter to a convent school:
“Many might think it is unusual for a Muslim mother to send her daughter to a Christian school. But I knew she would be free to follow her faith there... that she would not be looked down on because she believed. And as I had hoped, she found it strengthened her faith, allowing her to define her Muslim identity, allowing her to reflect Christianity within that, adopting the Lord’s Prayer as her own by simply substituting the word ‘Amen’ with ‘Ameen’.”

About 10pc of the schools in England and Wales are Catholic, with almost as many schools again being run in combination with other churches. Catholic schools were established in the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century to educate the children of Irish and other immigrants, and historically were set up by the Catholic communities themselves.

Originally founded primarily to serve immigrants and the poor, such schools persevere in this mission even today, being one of the most powerful instruments of social cohesion in modern Britain. Whereas 22.5pc of the pupils in a typical English school are members of ethnic minorities, 27.5pc of those in English Catholic schools are from such backgrounds, and typically about 30pc of pupils in English and Welsh Catholic schools are not from Catholic families.

Social commentators in Britain typically look to the numbers of pupils in care or in receipt of free school meals when evaluating the extent to which schools cater for the poor, and Catholic schools appear to be broadly in line with the national average in this regard, but it may be the case that these metrics are inadequate for measuring deprivation in schools, not least because there can be a stigma attached to claiming school meals.

Mike Craven, chairman of the board of governors at the illustrious Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in west London wrote in The Tablet last month to point out that the Vaughan has over twice the national average proportion of pupils with special educational needs with a deprivation indicator well above the national average. He points out that Catholic schools, as a rule, tend to have a much higher proportion of students from the most deprived areas than other schools do and a smaller proportion of students from less deprived areas.

Heeding the words of Gravissimum Educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on education, Britain’s Catholic schools “spare no sacrifice... in caring for the needs of those who are poor in the goods of this world.”

The quality of these schools is enviable. National inspections show that Catholic primary and secondary schools are more likely to be “good” or “outstanding” than British schools in general, with pupils in Catholic schools tending to show impressively high levels of learning achievement and personal development. Perhaps most strikingly, given the Irish debate, pupils in Catholic schools have been found to do better in terms of willingness to engage with those from other cultures.

Of course, from a Catholic point of view, this isn’t enough, and there’s a danger that parents could neglect their children’s religious education, leaving it in the hands of the schools so that it stops at the schoolyard gate. As Bunreacht Na hÉireann recognises, the family is “the primary and natural educator of the child,” and this applies as much to religion as anything else.

As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said on Would You Believe? last December, if we want our children to be members of the Church we need to have maturity and start facing up to our responsibilities. We need to remember that the State is there to help us raise our children, not to do our job for us.

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 26 April 2012.

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