In respect of denominational schools, Education Minister, Richard Bruton is following in the path of his two immediate Labour predecessors, Jan O’Sullivan and Ruairi Quinn. That is to say, he is investigating ways of reducing the influence of the Churches over our education system, especially at primary school level.
That influence, it should be said at the outset, is greatly exaggerated. The extent to which many Catholic schools are truly Catholic is open to question. Often the Catholic ethos extends to no more than a few religious symbols, preparation for Holy Communion and Confirmation – (supposedly) 30 minutes a day devoted to religious education, and perhaps the odd prayer.
To some, this will still seem like too much. But teachers will tell you that they struggle to find 30 minutes a day to devote to RE, and that is when they try their best to do so. When they do find the time, it often goes in one ear, and out the other, like in Irish class. The rest of the curriculum is set by the Department of Education.
Frequently teachers, and even principals, don’t practise the religion of the school that employs them. The same goes for many of the parents. In that sort of situation, the Catholic ethos of a Catholic school tends to be weak, and even RE comes to resemble civics class rather than religion class.
To some extent, of course, this shows that the education system does need to change. If the will is not really there to make Catholic schools properly Catholic, then isn’t the Church better off getting out of some of its schools? The answer seems to be yes, but actually things are more complicated than that because when push comes to shove, most parents seem content with a school system that is half-Catholic, half-not, because that is where many of the parents themselves are. Therefore they ending up resisting when there is an attempt to hand a Catholic school to another patron body.
These ‘half-Catholic, half-not’ parents might rarely come to Mass and will often criticise the Church, but they still tick the ‘Catholic’ box at Census time and don’t mind too much a kind of ‘soft’ Catholicism, a version of Christianity without the Cross, which is to say, an undemanding, inoffensive version of Christianity.
For the most part, this is what their children are taught in RE class, so they don’t mind their local school being Catholic because it most likely isn’t all that Catholic.
Needless to say, this doesn’t satisfy parents who want their local Catholic school to be more ardently Catholic. Nor does it satisfy those parents who want all publicly-funded schools to be fully secular (or as near as makes no difference) and for the Church(es) to have no say over them. It so happens that many journalists fit in this category, and so do most of the vocal politicians on the matter, and so this tendency has an influence far beyond its numbers.
But the truth is, this is not where most parents are at. Most parents are neither fully Catholic nor fully secular and most schools in the country more or less reflect their point of view.
This is also why Richard Bruton is placing far too much stress in his recent pronouncements about the need for the Church to reduce its footprint in education based on the fact that a third of weddings are now civil rather than religious.
To begin with, the figure for 2015 wasn’t a third. It was 27%. So, by Bruton’s logic that is the maximum number of schools that should be handed over by the Churches to other patron bodies. But it must be borne in mind that a lot of the increase in the number of civil weddings is driven by the fact that couples can now marry in hotels rather in churches or registry offices. They often do this out of sheer convenience because the reception will very likely be at the same venue. Obviously, these couples can’t be very religious, otherwise they would have married in a church. But it can’t be assumed they are very secular either.
In the UK, only a third of weddings are religious. But as we know, Church-run schools are extremely popular in Britain, far more popular than the evident secularism of British society would lead us to believe.
Richard Bruton wants to change the admissions policy of faith-based schools so as to limit their right to select children from their own faith community first in the very unlikely event of over-enrolment. Obviously where there is over-enrolment he would be far better off building more school places so no-one is turned away for any reason. He also wants to increase the number of multi-denominational and non-denominational schools to 400 by 2030, that is, in 13 years time.
In theory, few would object to this, and the Churches certainly don’t. The trick is to identify the right schools in the right areas. To this end, Minister Bruton has ordered a survey in 28 areas.
The survey is to be conducted by Education and Training Boards (formerly the VECs) and parents of pre-school children only will be included. This is very strange on both counts. The Education and Training Boards are the bodies to which many Catholic schools will be transferred, so they are a player in this. Why not ask the Catholic Church to conduct the survey while the Minister is at it?
Secondly, surveying only parents of pre-school children is bizarre. What about parents of children currently in primary school and who will be directly and immediately affected by any transfer?
Regardless of the outcome of the survey, however, the question for Richard Bruton is this; what rights does he want the remaining denominational schools to have? What rights will they have to control their own ethos? Will he set this out in a major speech? Will he properly acknowledge the popularity of faith schools with many parents? Above all, will he stop pandering to hard-core secularist groups that actually represent few people outside their own immediate circles and their friends in the media?