TV & Radio

Denominational education is the hot topic
While highly discussed, the debate remains highly skewed, writes Brendan O'Regan

Ray D’Arcy.

Apart from the out and out secularists, opinions on the issue of denominational education and school choice are closer than one might think from last week’s media debates. 

First up was Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan being interviewed on The Ray D’Arcy Show (RTE Radio 1) on the Monday afternoon. The denominational education question took up an inordinate amount of time, presumably reflecting D’Arcy’s own agenda (after the interview he said that issue was the only reason they had her on!) O’Sullivan came across as relatively moderate, suggesting she was looking for a choice for parents, whether they wanted denominational or non-denominational schooling.  

D’Arcy used loaded words like ‘discrimination’ and ‘indoctrination’ and one of O’Sullivan’s responses was worrying – “I personally would not want indoctrination, that’s my personal choice as a parent, but I know that  other parents choose to send their children to denominational schools and that’s their choice”.  

Was she implying that those parents believe in indoctrination? D’Arcy was pushing for uniformity across the education system, but O’Sullivan was more inclined to stress diversity, and she was hesitant but inclined to agree when pushed on the desirability of a secular society. 

That night the issue was discussed on Clare Byrne Live (RTE 1). The show started with a very one-sided promotional piece highlighting lawyer Paddy Monahan’s campaign against the measure that allows Catholic schools to prioritise Catholic children if the schools are over-subscribed. 

No amount of balance in the studio discussion that followed could make up for the way the debate was thus skewed. The studio debate was fair enough, robust, even fractious, and it struck me that such a complex issue doesn’t benefit from such a polarised presentation, especially if you’re trying for a resolution that respects all, or if that’s not practicable, most. 

On the panel, David Quinn stressed that there should be diversity in school types in accordance with parents’ wishes and that if schools were oversubscribed the obvious solution was for the Department of Education to provide more places or more schools. 

Monahan got another chance to promote his view on the panel, and there were some useful contributions from the audience.  As at the start, the notion of balance was abandoned again at the end of the segment with a poll that featured what Quinn called “an incredibly loaded question”, and of course it was – not least by using the word ‘discrimination’. 

He also declared how opposed he was to the idea of people getting children baptised just so they could get into Catholic schools. The debate seemed rushed and it’s a pity the whole show wasn’t given over to the topic. 

Ray D’Arcy watched that show and his reaction on the Tuesday was revealing (and inappropriate for a public broadcaster): ‘‘My blood was boiling watching David Quinn.” He said Quinn was good at “spitting out statistics” and that more often than not he is not challenged! I’m sure David Quinn was bemused. D’Arcy started the show reading out a reasoned contribution from a listener taking issue with him, but that sop did not remotely fulfil impartiality requirements. 

Later he said “we have to change the patronage of our primary schools”, and that “all religions should be taken out of school”. Then he denied that he was slating the Catholic Church, or being intolerant of Catholicism. 

One of the better treatments of the issue was on Talking Point, with Sarah Carey on Newstalk last Saturday morning. 

It was a useful discussion, with John Murray of the Iona Institute debating with Kitty Holland of The Irish Times. Carey asked hard questions of both sides (I’ve never heard Holland challenged so thoroughly), though I felt adding Paul Rowe of Educate Together unbalanced the show somewhat. With this show I felt it was a genuine effort to tease out the issue rather than an ideological pitch.  

The issue came full circle last Monday on Morning Ireland when Cathal Mac Coille interviewed Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. It was a significant contribution and will no doubt be much referenced. He thought there would be no future for Catholic schools if there wasn’t a viable alternative. While he understood the reluctance of communities to change he seemed impatient for the divesting of an appropriate number of schools to continue and thought some in the Catholic “educational establishment”  were dragging their feet – “if they stay snoozing they may wake up in another planet”!


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