The role of the Catholic Church as a provider of Primary schooling has been much in the news of late. The catalyst was apparently the lack of school places for new Irish children in North County Dublin. In other places, a policy of prioritising access to Primary schools for Catholic children ahead of other children who were older or lived in the neighbourhood evoked malaise.
Writing recently of these situations, Tom Collins, Professor of Education in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth says that these and similar situations have ‘starkly highlighted the issues of school patronage and the State’s role in Irish education provision. In particular, it reminded us how the State has traditionally adopted a largely subsidiary role – essentially conceding control in the field of education to the Catholic Church while at the same time underpinning the costs of provision’.
How valid is this perspective? The National School system was initially established to provide a multi- denominational primary education system which would bring together children from many denominations while providing for separate religious instruction.
However, the system soon became denominational, while welcoming all children.
Today most Primary schools are under Catholic patronage, which since the 1970s means they are under the patronage of the local Bishop. The Education Act 1998 makes no distinction between trustee and patron, though historically there are differences.
So it is that Primary schools have been established with State funding and a local contribution since 1831. This usually meant that a local lay trustee applied to the State authorities for permission and monies to build a school for the children of an area. This trustee subsequently appointed a manager who ensured that the school functioned. In most cases, the manager appointed was the local priest. Another (separate) trustee was often party to a lease on the property with the State whereby the property was leased for the purposes of offering a particular kind of education. This means, for example, that if a Primary school should close, the lease ceases and the monies acquired through the sale of the property are proportionately shared with the original investors. In many cases, the local community as a parish supplied the site and public funds paid for the school building. In time, many of the original trustees and their successors died and by default the 3 original roles became one with the consequent blurring of roles. Thus generally the local priest/manager succeeded to the role of trustee and manager, investing heavily in the associated tasks.
It was only in the late 1960s that the then Secretary General of the Department of Education drew attention to the legal quagmire that then existed in most Primary schools which no longer had living trustees! An Irish solution to an Irish problem was found! Bishops – Catholic and Church of Ireland were appointed as trustees/patrons of all the Primary schools within their respective dioceses. The arrangements made were completed before other parties to the matter were aware of them. It was assumed too that denominational Primary schooling was the norm, there being constitutional support for this view.
As often happens in the affairs of men and women too, all this happened at the cusp of change– economically, socially, religiously -of the late 1960s-early 1970s. Within a few short years the first Educate Together type schools were established at the behest of interested parents who replaced Church leaders as trustees. The Gaelscoil movement soon followed, with some becoming schools under the patronage of the local Catholic Bishop, others following the trusteeship model of the Educate Together type schools.
One significant difference informs the development of Catholic and other Primary schools. New Catholic Primary schools are parish based and usually applied for with a definite site provided by the parish community, a clear cohort of local pupils and timeframe for opening. This is partly why the number of new Catholic schools opened tends to be smaller and matches the number of applications for such new schools. This contrasts with the policy of some other trustee bodies who apply for several schools, many of which will not open in the foreseeable future. In a sense the applications for new schools sometimes reflect a differing concept of declaration of intent by patron/trustee groups.
Convent and Monastery schools, however, are in a different category to other Primary schools. These schools were often built independently with no State funding, and subsequent annual payment of a capitation grant in lieu of salaries. Religious generally retain the trusteeship of the property and the trusteeship of the enterprise housed by the school buildings. However, it is the local Bishop who is now the patron, with ultimate responsibility for all Catholic Primary schools in a diocese. This includes the appointment of members of the Board of Management. Consultations among religious trustees concerning good practice in the appointment and other patron and trustee roles in Convent/Monastery schools has resulted in certain amendments being made in the forthcoming Handbook for Boards of Management of Primary Schools 2007. It is hoped these amendments will become general practice in all dioceses.
In the light of the multiple changes in Irish society, the patterns and solutions of the past need revisiting. The positioning of Church interests in Primary schools provision calls for urgent attention. What can the Church offer? What should it offer? How should we read the signs of our times? As the State is the guardian of the common good, should the State not itself identify where primary schools are needed and invite interested patrons/trustee groups to set up these schools? This might be a more equitable approach in terms of provision and rationalisation and the creation of shared values.
Catholic Primary schools are firstly schools sharing much in common with all schools. They are also schools, each with differing local contexts, operating in the context of contemporary Ireland. Many of these schools are schools for the local community of school going children. This is in sharp contrast to Post-Primary schools where in some places more than 70% of pupils do not attend their local school. Catholic schools have specific links to the Church in terms of the building of community, and proposing certain values. The central role traditionally of the Primary school in the preparation for the sacraments of initiation is a particular challenge not just for pupils, parents but also for teachers and the whole faith community. The seemingly seamless links between family, school and parish of another time are largely absent to-day. This absence has implications for how and where the Church positions itself in Primary schools.Notwithstanding, Primary schools remain for some the locus of evangelisation, for others catechesis, for still others pre-evangelisation. As in the past, these schools too can open new worlds and opportunities to young people today. Hence we welcome the recent policy document from the Episcopal Conference, Catholic Primary Schools A Policy for Provision into the Future that was launched in early October. May it lead to wise and graceful discernment of a complex challenge.