Fintan O’Toole on the future of schools

Of all of the advocates of the secular agenda, one of the most bracing has to be Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. Like him or not, he usually uses logical arguments, which are internally consistent. You may not like what he says, but you generally respect the consistency with which he makes his arguments. 

Which is why his column in today’s Irish Times is so disappointing. In it, he suggests that a State takeover of primary schools from Church ownership would not necessarily entail control by bureaucrats from the Department of Education.

“If, we are told, we don’t want church control of schools and hospitals, we must have State control. If the church hands over ownership of primary schools, everything will be run by bureaucrats from the Department of Education in Dublin,” he writes.

But Fintan goes on to tell us, reassuringly, that it “ain’t necessarily so”. Public ownership, he assures us “isn’t the same thing as rigid State control”. He adds, somewhat at a tangent, that there will always be “an important place for voluntary organisation, including that of religious communities and people of faith”. 

But that still leaves us with the thorny question of who exactly will be in charge of our schools? He doesn’t make this clear. It’s evident he wants the State to own all the schools it funds, but would the Churches be let run some of them, while other third parties would run the rest? In running the schools, how much control would these third parties (eg Educate Together) have over them? Crucially, how much control would they have over the ethos of the schools they run? Also, how responsive would the O’Toole system be to the matter of parental choice? 

Fintan says that Irish debate “is very good at presenting people with false alternatives”. But, without wanting to be unkind, it seems that Fintan here is presenting his readers with exactly that; a false choice.

He is arguing that the only alternative to the status quo, in which the Catholic church has control of too many primary schools is a complete State takeover, at least in terms of ownership. But he fails to acknowledge that a huge majority of parents (78 per cent according to our own poll conducted by Red C) want to have a choice of school provision. 

A majority of parents (51 per cent) want to continue sending their children to denominational schools. A third want to send their children to multi-denominational schools run by the State. Others want to send their children to non-denominational schools. 

Ideally, this plurality of provision is the best way forward for Irish education. Obviously every single choice can’t be catered for because that would be impractical. But allowing for as much educational diversity as is reasonably possible is better than a one-size-fits-all, wholly State-run education system. And it is probably also better than a State-owned system of the type Fintan envisages but doesn’t properly flesh out.