Who Runs Our Schools?

A Would You Believe? Special

96% of Ireland's National Schools have a religious ethos. Almost 90% of them are Roman Catholic. The National School System is no longer fit for purpose because it doesn't reflect the beliefs of Ireland's population today and the demand for other types of schools. But the Irish Government has been slow to bring about change because the Church owns most of Ireland's primary schools. So, who is running our schools?

In the last census 10% of Ireland's population have identified themselves as having no religion. The number of Catholics has fallen to 78% of the population and a growing number of them no longer practise their faith. But does that mean they don't want Catholic Schools for their children? More and more people are demanding non religious schools for their children but they have no option but to send them to a faith school. Under the present law, faith schools can refuse access to children who are not of their faith - it's commonly referred to as the 'Baptism Barrier'. In schools that are oversubscribed some non believing parents are baptising their children to secure a school place in their local area. " It was the most mercenary and hypocritical thing I have ever done in my life," says Eoin O'Brien. Some parents like Roopesh Panicker, who is Hindu, have no option but to send their children to a Catholic School. ".We practise our religion but we don't impose our religion on anybody. Everyone should have the equal rights to practice their religion. But it should be kept out of the school and in a fair way."

Pressure is mounting on the government to change the situation. "Ireland is changing and education has to change with it. I'm pushing on with what I believe is a response to the different environment that people are growing up in and the different expectations of citizens now of an education system", says the current Minister for Education Richard Bruton. But haven't we heard it all before?

Over the years Catholic schools have been accommodating a diverse population and are inclusive of all faiths and none. Today the government is negotiating change with the Church to transfer some of its schools to other non-religious patrons. Some Catholics feel the State does not value what they currently do: "I see, open, honest and shall we say respectful debate that recognises and guarantees a valued place for faith based schools in this new landscape that they are seeking to construct.and greater recognition on the part of the State on what we are already doing to include people in faith schools. They are really trying to fix a problem that in many instances does not exist. - Professor Eamonn Conway, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.