In any Irish government, the Minister for Education and Science has a public profile second only to the Minister for Health, proof of our interest in education. Vast amounts of time and money are invested in primary and secondary education; grind schools are so popular that they are now a sub-section within the secondary sector; daily newspapers publish weekly education supplements.
With all this effort, secondary education may be seen, in the harrowing race for points, merely as a preparation for university; primary education, in this perspective, could become a Cinderella.
The current British obsession with “faith schools” is reflected by some Irish commentators, who, overlooking the distinctly different characteristics of Irish society, make regular and hostile references to the “Catholic Church’s control of education”. Terms such as “educational apartheid” are used, because it is presumed that church schools are divisive, support privilege and exploit the State, which is, equally, presumed to have complete control of education. Government ministers and other politicians, whatever their own religious convictions, become unnecessarily defensive as they seek commentators’ approval. Such criticism does not, usually, include Irish Protestant schools, because that might be seen as politically incorrect.
In reality, the education system in Ireland is State-supported, rather than State owned. Since 1966, State involvement has meant that far more children have gone on to secondary education, using school systems largely founded by the churches. The variety of these schools has been their strength; it is always a mistake to regard them, or their patrons, as homogeneous. The French secular tradition, usually lauded in this context, would be a bad graft onto Irish society, especially in education.
Teachers are accustomed to getting lots of unwanted advice, not least from people who have never faced a classroom. They have a right to be both angry and depressed whenever they are seen merely as delivering a service or presenting a product, with no hint that they pass on an incalculable amount of wisdom.
One of the objections to church schools is that they teach disproved doctrines and transmit outdated worldviews. From this perspective, the best education is rational and scientific, though the notion that science can be totally independent of its cultureis truly risible. Putting ourselves at the top of the evolutionary tree is presumptuous and leads to hubris, whereas history, ancient or contemporary, shows that we are all too ready to behave irrationally. We need religion as part of our society. The majority of Irish parents recognise this and want a religious aspect to their children’s education. They are not troubled by diversity in the student body. They are very keen on local education (hence their enthusiasm for national schools). Their commitment to the transmission of religious beliefs is, however, less obvious.
So, though frequently reported only when there is failure or controversy, Irish primary and secondary education is characterised by commitment and creativity. There is an admirable capacity for coping with limited finances, an increasingly diverse student body, inadequate buildings and slow implementation of the government’s own policies, i.e. of integrating immigrant children, which is still more theoretical than practical, as, for example, in the lack of adequate language support.
The Joint Managerial Body unites the four hundred Catholic and Protestant voluntary secondary schools. It is a remarkable example of unity between two groups that once hardly knew each other. Its existence points to the role of secondary schools as integrating forces in Irish society.
The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference published a Pastoral Letter on Catholic Education in May 2008. Vision 08: A Vision for Catholic Education In Ireland is a broad and encouraging plan for education in the whole of Ireland. The real challenge is outlined on page 4: “Religious Education and Prayer”, because religious instruction in Ireland (despite many good programmes) has been so fragile for so long that many parents have little idea of what they are supposed to believe and are somewhat uncomfortable in any overtly religious context. First Holy Communion and Confirmation are now established as rites of passage for many, rather than steps forward in faith.
Many of us now lack the vocabulary to express our beliefs, beyond a vague good will about God. The ageing clergy and religious are regarded by many Christians not so much as responding to a calling, but rather as the professionals, guardians of a tradition that impacts on daily life only at times of crisis. There is a danger that the basics of our Christian beliefs and culture will not be passed to those now at school. This comes, in part, from a lack of interest and/or a presumption that schools can give adequate religious instruction, irrespective of what the children are taught, or not taught, at home. If this comes to pass, not only will our society be weakened and changed for the worse, but our past and our culture will become almost incomprehensible to our youngest citizens.
A vague, sentimental attachment to Christianity, as a cosy folkloric religion, is not what Ireland needs.