An important discussion of these issues will be taking place at the annual meeting of the Education and Training Boards of Ireland in Killarney this week (September 20th and 21st).
The fundamental issue is the definition of the principles on which a system of public education should be based, and the need to create a system that will reflect those principles.
Prior to the 1970s, no such debates appeared to be necessary. The planning and the provision of education was generally outsourced by Irish politicians to a loose combination of the churches and the vocational education authorities.
It was, effectively, a stable, sectorally-based system, on the assumption that the limited range of choices available was adequate.
In the 1970s the introduction of community schools and, in the primary sector, the emergence of Educate Together, changed things considerably.
In more recent years, there has been the emergence of the divestment policy at primary level, and the addition of further new sectors: second-level Educate Together schools, community primary schools under the vocational management umbrella.
Other relevant developments include the O’Keefe case, where the European Court of Human Rights concluded that where the State devolves authority to a patron, it does not devolve the responsibility, and that “a State cannot absolve itself from obligations to minors in primary schools by delegating those duties to private bodies or individuals”.
This has created a situation in which both policymakers and parents find themselves navigating uncertainly between the Scylla of effective planning and the Charybdis of parental choice, but without much by way of a compass. Religious interests, meanwhile, are closely watching the situation, keen to copperfasten or enhance their role and influence.
A parallel discussion is in progress about whether, and to what extent, a publicly-funded education system should incorporate education about religion, as distinct from confessionally-based religious instruction.
The potential for confusion, for the unnecessary expenditure of public money, and for top-heavy administrative structures, in a system apparently now veering towards offering an ever-expanding range of sectoral choices without regard to the opportunity costs involved, is mind-boggling.
This confusion is exacerbated by the vague use of a wide range of terms – multidenominational, nondenominational, etc – which tend to mean different things to different people.
It also compounds the problems created by the segregation of children on background attributes – religion, ethnicity, class – which has a negative impact on social cohesion.
Is there a simpler way of doing things? Why cannot we design a system in which all parents should be able to send their children to a publicly-funded and democratically accountable primary or secondary school closest to them in the confident expectation that it is a good school?
This does not necessarily exclude local arrangements by which school premises could be used by any local group – including religious denominations – by agreement for religious instruction of a confessional kind, at their own expense, and outside of curricular hours.
In this context, it is more than interesting that Pope Francis recently expressed himself on church-State relationships, in an interview with the French Catholic magazine La Croix, in terms which would have had several of his predecessors rotating in their sepulchres.
While he insisted on the right of everyone – Muslims as well as Christians – to profess their faith at the heart of their own culture, he commented:
“States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of history. I believe that a version of laicity [the French system of separation of church and state] accompanied by a solid law guaranteeing religious freedom offers a guarantee for going forward.”
So, if we are to try seriously to plan and provide a public educational system that will be suitable for all our people, can we take as our starting point that it should also respect and embody the principles of democratic accountability, and respect for a wide range of cultural – including religious – values and systems, but without creating a special role for any religious denomination?
Or do we think that we should be more Catholic than the pope?