The long-overdue admission by the Catholic Bishops' Conference yesterday that there are too many catholic schools in the country to meet demand for this model of education has been the source of much optimism. Yesterday's pastoral letter even included plans to cede control of some of their schools to "wholly or partly to lay people". It would seem petty not to praise them for making this admission and responding by announcing these plans. And indeed John Walshe of the indo is almost breathless about them.
However, we need to be very careful about what they said -- and what they didn't say, for indeed they didn't say very much about the Irish education system's present that wasn't already obvious, and they didn't say very much about their plans for Irish education's future that wasn't already inevitable.
That there is an oversupply of catholic schools has been clear at least since 2004, with the publication of the Educational Research Centre's survey, Views of the Irish public on education in 2004. Very mysteriously it didn't receive wide publicity at the time, but its raw results showed that between 49.6 and 61% of Irish people favoured a non or interdenominational approach to education in the Republic of Ireland. Just 44.7% were willing to even grant parents the right to choose denominational education for their children. See Table 20 on page 34.
In March of this year, David Quinn's IONA Institute received the result of a Red C poll they commissioned on the same subject (for more on this survey and IONA's dishonest interpretation of it, see my previous post here). The results were slightly different, as the subject is very sensitive to how questions are put on the questionnaire (I've asked for, but still haven't got, the IONA wording), but even with the IONA-commissioned survey, only 49% of parents favoured catholic denominational education. Compare this against the figure of 92% of schools in the country being catholic and denominational, a figure which understates the real position, as catholic schools tend to be larger than schools of other denominations and of none.
Another unpleasant surprise was the survey commissioned by the bishops' conference itself, which, despite a wording that could be expected to heavily bias results in favour of pro-denominational views, and despite the fact that the survey was conducted only in catholic schools, support for catholic denominational education came out even lower: 52%, given the choice, would not opt for a denominational school. The survey was made over the whole island, north and south. (A couple of other things about the survey need to be borne in mind: it was clearly marked as having been commissioned by an organ of the Catholic Church and was collected personally, both of which factors could also be expected to influence the results.)
So it's hardly rocket science that there are too many catholic schools in the country.
As for handing over schools to lay management, we're not talking about anything that hasn't already started to happen. Last year, for example, the Christian Brothers, largely due to the fact that they haven't got the personnel to do the work (there hasn't been a single new Christian Brother created in a good few years now), ceded control of many of their schools to the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, made up of "the laity". It should be noted though, that this does not necessarily mean such schools become automatically non or interdenominational (The charter of the CBS trust expressly specifies that schools under its care remain catholic, and trustees were all appointed by the order). In fact, no catholic school has yet declared itself no longer catholic and/or no longer denominational in the history of the state. The bishops' pastoral letter doesn't say anything about plans to do so either.
The Christian Brothers are not the only ones having trouble finding manpower. There is not a single organisation of the religious that's bucking the trend of generalised recruitment meltdown. Nobody wants to be a priest or a nun anymore. The immediate future of the catholic church does indeed seem therefore to be in the hands of the laity. But the laity includes, for example, most of the membership of Opus Dei, very few of whom are likely to be well disposed towards multi or non-denominationalism.
Personally, your blogger is not expecting any catholic schools to become multi-denominational overnight. It is, of course, possible that the new trusts running the schools will be eventually controlled by the parents of children attending them, which would probably over time lead to the school slowly converting to a multi or non-denominational model as new parents become involved in school management. It's not yet clear what models of trusteeship will be chosen. The catholic heirarchy is not renowned for its commitment to democracy in bodies under its tutelage.
John Walshe obviously ran with a tactical leak of the pastoral letter in his article yesterday. For some reason or other, he mentions casually a rough figure of 10-20% of schools that he suggests may be removed from direct church control. I wonder whether he picked the ballpark figure out of the air, or has a reason for quoting it. To be clear, given the results of the three surveys outlined above, the appropriate percentage of schools for removal from church control would seem to be about 50%. The maths is easy: actual percentage of schools controlled by church: at least 92%, percentage of parents requiring catholic denominational education: 45% or so (and falling).
The bishops have declared their strong support for the "primacy of parents' rights in the education of their children." It seems possible that their pastoral letter is a sign that they take their position on the issue seriously. I hope so.
But after looking at the numbers and at what the Bishops say and fail to say, what emerges could still be interpreted by an aggressive secularist like me as a damage limitation exercise. I hope I'm wrong.
The bishops have indicated that their letter should be interpreted as an invitation to dialogue. They are not clear, however, on who they want to participate in this dialogue. I hope aggressive secularists are invited.