The Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, delivered an important speech on school admissions policy last month.
There was much in it to be admired and applauded: that non-religious parents should not feel unfairly disadvantaged by attending the local school; that children should have an opportunity to understand the differing views of other faiths and none; that appropriate educational provision be made for children whose parents do not wish them to take religious education; and that the desire of religious parents to educate their children in their faith should be welcomed and respected.
These are important principles to be welcomed and supported.
They are educationally even-handed, nuanced and inclusive.
All stakeholders agree that school types should mirror more closely the changing demographics and cultural needs of modern Ireland.
Pluralism requires diversity and diversity enriches all.
In that regard one must also welcome Mr Bruton’s plans to progress the divestment process and explore the potential of community national schools as an alternative provider, alongside others.
Mr Bruton has said the patronage and ethos of our schools is not something which this generation has created. It is something, he said, we have inherited and change is needed to meet the needs of today’s families.
This statement could give the impression that the current patronage and ethos of the majority of schools are somehow caught in a time-warp of another era.
The capacity of most primary schools to be inclusive in the last 20 years in meeting the demands of a new and diverse population has been remarkable.
More particularly, Catholic primary schools have changed significantly in the last 50 years.
For example, Catholic Schools Week 2017 took place across Ireland the week before last.
The theme, “Learning with Pope Francis to care for our common home”, was informed by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical letter on the environment.
In his publication the pope calls for a new “ecological education and spirituality” and a radical “conversion” of all if we are to hand on a habitable planet to the next generation.
Nothing could be more timely and urgent at all levels of education than this global call for an “integral ecology” and climate justice.
The ethos of primary schools has also changed through the influence of the ecumenical movement on religious education in Catholic and Church of Ireland schools.
The relationship between the churches has changed significantly and this is reflected in the sharing of religious education resources.
Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue were not a part of religious education of most adults in Ireland in the last century. If anything, the attitude towards other churches and religions was negative and this may explain the negative sentiment of some towards Catholic schools today.
However, that has changed and is changing, perhaps not as much as some would like. Yet, change is in the air, especially under the leadership of Pope Francis.
Ecology, ecumenism and interreligious education are not optional within Catholic schooling; instead they are an essential part of Christian identity in the 21st century.
The clearest expression of these and other developments as part of the religious education programmes of Catholic schools can be found in the Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education curriculum for Ireland (2015).
This new curriculum is not “something we have inherited” from a “different era”, but rather an example of the church’s capacity to respond to the signs of the times.
One hopes that greater account would be taken of these and other changes in Catholic thinking in the current discussions about admissions.
There is a need for policymakers, and the providers of denominational education, to go beyond stereotypes and listen more carefully to the findings of recent consultations and surveys.
Education is too important to allow old prejudices to colour the necessary dialogue about what is best for the teaching and learning of the next generation who will have to grow up in a world very different to the present one – a world more fragile, fractious and fraught – but where awareness of one’s identity and values will be more important than ever.
Mgr Dermot A Lane is parish priest of Balally parish, Dublin, and author of Religion and Education: Reimagining the Relationship, Veritas (2013)