No Catholic primary schools should be handed over to new patron bodies without firm guarantees that the ethos of the remaining schools will be properly respected, one of the country’s leading Catholic educationalists has said.
Professor Eamonn Conway (pictured), head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate, Limerick, made the remarks at an event in Buswells hotel yesterday organised by The Iona Institute.
He also said that the proposed new programme for primary schools, Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) should not be made mandatory because it “could school pupils in a secularist view of religion and thus undermine the school’s characteristic spirit”.
In his address, Professor Conway, a priest of the Tuam archdiocese, quoted Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, who said last year that he didn't believe that the Catholic Church would divest any of its schools if it believed it that it would be “curtailed in terms of how it celebrates and teaches Catholicism to its own community”.
Professor Conway said: “Frankly, I would hope that this is the case; that is, that agreement on the divesting of schools will be dependent upon guarantees regarding the protection of the characteristic spirit of the stand-alone schools that will not be divested.”
He drew particular attention to recommendations of the Report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.
He said these recommendations if implemented would force denominational schools, among other things, to display all religious symbols along with their own and to vet prayers to ensure they are sufficiently ‘inclusive’.
In particular he warned that the Report's recommendation that Rule 68, which allows denominational schools to animate the school with the ethos of the school would weaken denominational schooling.
Rule 68, he said, “protects against the secular/liberal view of education that the nature of the human person and the meaning and goal of life are merely matters of arbitrary opinion”.
Without Rule 68, Professor Conway said there would be “no underpinning to the legal right and responsibility of patrons to uphold and foster a characteristic spirit or ethos in accordance with the school’s patronage”.
He added: “The recommendation, in line with what it claims was 'the general view expressed at the Forum', to delete, rather than just update or explicate Rule 68, in my view leaves the Forum Report open to an accusation of possible ideological bias.”
He also expressed concern at proposals to weaken Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act which protects the right of religious organisations, including schools, to employ only individuals who will respect the ethos of their employer.
Professor Conway also pointed to the fact that the initial finding of the Government's pilot survey on schools patronage suggested that the demand for alternative patrons was not as great as had been anticipated.
While the Government had said that the figures showed parental demand for a greater choice of patron, the reality was, Professor Conway said “that a very large number of the parents who responded indicated that they wished to have their children educated in Catholic schools”.
“In fact, the pilot survey proved to be a surprising endorsement of denominational education,” he said.
He added: “The actual number of parents who expressed an opinion in favour of change in each of the five areas polled in the pilot survey amounted to between five and eight per cent, evidence of parental demand, certainly, but hardly of a 'strong' or 'clear' demand or 'clear need' for greater choice, as the findings were reported in the press.”