Church should stand its ground on school patronage

When I was in boarding school a significant figure was invited to address the students. As it happened we weren’t too interested in what he had to say and after speaking for what seemed like an inordinate period of time a gradual hum of conversation emanated from the student body.
After the formalities were over and our guest took his leave we were asked by the school principal to remain behind. He waded into us on the disrespect we had shown ‘a guest of the college’, how insulting our behaviour was, how we had let ourselves and the college down and how a letter of apology would have to be composed and signed by every student in the hall. To say that the principal was annoyed would be underestimating the situation. He was apoplectic with rage.
When I saw teachers give the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, a flotilla of red cards I thought of our old school principal. How times have changed. What I wonder would the same teachers say if their own students had shown a guest of their school (or even themselves) a red card?
At the very least the ungracious behaviour of albeit a minority of teachers calls into question the wisdom of an embarrassed Minister for Education running around the country delivering formal set-piece speeches with teachers reacting in predictably ungracious fashion – an exercise about as instructive as ringing the bell three times in one week for Pavlov’s dog. It is difficult to see what purpose the whole exercise serves, apart from offering easy copy for media in a holiday week.
Such annual conferences may be necessary for unions and associations to do their business but what appears in the media is effectively a sound-byte that creates more heat than light. What is needed in Irish education is stringent analysis of problems (and pseudo-problems) rather than playing to the populist agenda of the latest public gallery.
The report published by the Department of Education on school patronage is a case in point. Parents in 306 Catholic schools were surveyed and the result is a recommendation for change in 28 (that’s 9%) of those schools – not a very significant figure. Yet the results of this survey have been embellished and exaggerated by groups with particular agendas agitating for change.
For instance, as Fr Michael Drumm has pointed out in an opinion piece in The Irish Times, the suggestion that two-thirds of parents want a change in the management of school ­– hyped continually in the media by those in favour of change – is simply false.
Reading some of the commentary in the press, you’d imagine that the vast majority of parents are anxious to send their children to schools without Catholic patronage when in fact the clear result is that a very large number of parents want to have their children educated in Catholic schools. And another clear result is that the vast majority of parents have no interest in changing the management structure of the schools their children attend.
The detail of the survey is instructive. One of the 23 areas mooted for a school not under Catholic patronage is Ballina. Parents in 16 schools with a total roll-call of 1,954 pupils in the Ballina area were surveyed. The parents of 44 children said that they will avail of an English-language multidenominational school if such was avaliable to them. That’s 2.2% of the total number of pupils.
So what’s going to happen to facilitate just over 2% of the pupils in the greater Ballina area? Will 2% have to be facilitated even if the 98% aren’t interested in any change and even if the fall-out from the inevitable displacement that will occur disrupts or even damages individual schools – for example, in terms of teacher numbers? And what school building by what parish will be handed over to facilitate at most 2% of pupils of the greater Ballina area? And who will compensate that parish for the loss of possibly a significant and lucrative property?
When an interviewer on RTE Radio’s Morning Ireland asked Ruairí Quinn how the Catholic Church would react, his trite comment was that the whole issue was originally raised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, so he expected that the Church would cooperate. It was a naive response which showed that he was unacquainted with the niceties of church geography and jurisdiction.
The Archbishop of Dublin may be punching above his weight at a national level but the reality is that while he can make decisions about signing over schools in Dublin he has absolutely no jurisdiction over the rest of the country. Anyone presuming otherwise has little knowledge of Irish church history. (In 1837, at a defamation trial in Sligo the PP of Kilmore Erris, John Patrick Lyons, told the court that he was not bound by the opinion of the Archbishops of Armagh and Tuam because, as a priest of the diocese of Killala, neither had jurisdiction over him.)
The underlining wisdom in government circles seems to be that the Catholic Church is going to roll over on this issue. The wisdom is that the Church is now so weakened, so lacking in public support, so wounded from its self-inflicted wounds that it won’t chance any more public odium. And that wisdom is being cheer-led by those with particular agendas.
There are three things awry with that belief. One is that the vast majority of parents don’t want any change in the management of their schools; two is that no parish will easily offer a building to facilitate the State’s responsibility to provide schools for those who don’t want to be in Catholic schools; and three is that what might work in Dublin may not work in Mayo.
Maybe this is the issue that the Church needs to find its voice on again. Maybe we need, like that teacher’s union, to take out a few red cards and point them at the Minister for Education and those who presume that the Catholic Church can be taken for granted – yet again. My former school principal might turn in his grave at the prospect but there comes a point at which the Catholic Church needs to stand its ground.

Similar Posts


  1. Wonderful! A great piece, Brendan. I hope it’s brought to Ruari Quinn’s attention, so he can maybe moderate his overblown plans for intervention and change. Could he perhaps change his focus to ensure that the university grants are efficiently distributed, and act as a facilitator for what teachers, the real experts, need in order to do their work well.

  2. Joan Murphy says:

    Wonderful article claiming our right as Catholics to speak our truth.
    Yes Brendan the church may be on its knees but with clarity, conviction and courage we can still be true to ourselves and our parish communities- just as you have done here.
    It’s what leadership is all about. Well done and thank you.

  3. Mary Cunningham says:

    On examining the full report on
    http://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Policy-Reports/Report-on-the-surveys-regarding-parental-preferences-on-primary-school-patronage.pdf, and focusing on the statistics for Ballina the following facts emerged from the data.
    The total number of children represented in the survey, (477) represent 24.4% of the total number of school children (1,954).
    The data reveal on the question of preference:
    • ‘I would prefer a wider choice’, 167/477 (35%)
    • I do not want a wider choice’ 170/477 (35.6%)
    • I have no preference for a wider choice 135/477 (28.3%)
    It is not possible to attribute preference for maintaining the status quo to those representing over 75% of the school children, who did not take part in the survey. From the reasonable sample size, it is probable that the above spread of opinion is representative of the larger population.

  4. Mícheál says:

    Unfortunately there is no relationship in this survey between sample size and representativeness. The latter only applies where the sample is a true random sample. In this case, the respondents are self selecting, therefore no valid conclusion about the population may be inferred from the results. Even if we equate children to respondents (it is very unlikely that no respondent had more than one child) we can only say with certainty that there were only 167 preferences from parents for a wider choice out of 1,964 or about 8.5%. Given the non representative nature of the sample design, we can say absolutely nothing about the 75%+ who did not reply. Finally we can only guess as to what a wider choice means: it may be multi denominational, or exclusively Catholic, or Irish speaking or whatever. The sad reality is that is a badly designed, ideologically driven survey which has backfired on the minister. There is no wholesale desire for an abandoning of Catholic schools.

  5. Mary Cunningham says:

    Micheál, How is it that any reservation about the robustness of the survey design is brushed aside when Fr. Michael Drumm in the same opinion piece quoted by Brendan Hoban, claimed that
    ‘The surveys provide a notable affirmation of Catholic schools.’?
    Fr Drumm is correct when he says
    “Exaggerating the figures …is of no benefit in this process”.
    So why then does he persist in quoting the actual data as a percentage of the total population of schoolchildren as opposed to a percentage of the valid surveys?
    The summary of results presented in Appendix 4
    reveals that the findings from all of 43 participating areas are shown doing just that, representing the actual data as a percentage of the total population.
    Irrespective of the nature of the sample design, we can say absolutely nothing about those who did not take part in this survey.

  6. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Do you reckon I’d be taken out and shot at dawn if I were to suggest that the 2.2% online vote for some sort of School Reform in Ballina compares not unfavourably with the 0.4% / 0.7% / 1.47% expression of interest, Jan – March on this online site, in some sort of Church Reform ?
    To (slightly mischievously) split my infinitive while misquoting Brendan: “Will 0.859% ave. have to be facilitated even if the 99.141% aren’t interested in any Church change – or at least not in any sort of change or reform they see on offer?”
    Fr Michael Drumm was of course right to query the mainly online format, last September and in February and April, leading to a predictable low turnout, and skewing of the response.
    Now I see your Coalition are sending your Minister of Education over here on Wednesday to help our Coalition bury our former Secretary of Education for £10,000,000, while the same Coalition slashes benefits here in Haringey and other deprived boroughs. Now I know that the undertakers are making a killing out of their business – which is why I’m donating myself to Medical Science (‘mo chorp do’n lia, m’anam le Dia’) – but £10m is a bit steep, and you’d think they’d stand us all a celebratory drink from the small change. Ruairí may get some inspiration from Thatcher the Milk Snatcher, but be careful it’s not just the poor childher’s milk he snatches. There are some Coalition ministers in Dublin and London who’d snatch the eye outa your head and persuade you you’re far better-looking with just the one.

  7. QUOTE When an interviewer on RTE Radio’s Morning Ireland asked Ruairí Quinn how the Catholic Church would react, his trite comment was that the whole issue was originally raised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, so he expected that the Church would cooperate.

    Ruairi Quinn was saying at one stage that he wanted 50% of schools under Church patronage to be handed over. I can’t remember now, but was it Archbishop Martin who originally suggested that?
    Fr Hoban also seems to be implying that our politicians actively despise a Church that is not prepared to stand up for itself. I am aware of that fact from my own personal experience. Do the appeasers in the Church realise that their submissiveness is inviting further attack? EVEN if they want to take the “easy option”, then that option is actually to defend themselves!

  8. Mícheál says:

    Mary, you are absolutely correct. This is not a robust survey in any way. Apart from reporting the percentages of this and that, perhaps it could reasonably be said that a putative majority clamouring for change failed to appear! On the other hand, there is no ringing endorsement for Catholic schools. The silence of that ‘majority’ cannot be read as wholesale unequivocal support for the current situation. There is no fresh clarity, for example, about what Catholic identity or ethos really means, nor about the standards of religious education, nor about the role of parents in sacramental preparation.
    All in all, I believe there is a major problem to be sorted in Catholic schools. The variety of ‘Catholicity’, the quality of religious formation, the degree to which schools are truly living Catholic communites, the level of chaplain involvement and the degree to which parents have a real and meaningful role are all open issues.
    In a time when there are 3000 faith based schools vs 100 or so others, it is hardly surprising that some teachers feel the need to maintain a Catholic front for fear of not getting a job. The hierarchy’s demand that every teacher in a Catholic school hold a Certifcate in Religious Education while simultaneously holding a monopoly on primary education is highly problematic.
    There are many fine teachers who are not devout Catholics. Many of them teach in our Catholic schools. Why do we not allow schools to make arrangements for religious education as necessary within a school, while retaining the best teachers and at the same time maintaining the school’s ethos? There is a fudge here, and one that leaves a deeply unsavoury taste.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.