Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Church of Ireland College of Education Order 2013: Motion
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock. Before we commence, I wish to draw attention to the fact that by virtue of by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular subject and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against an individual or an entity either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it easily identifiable. I advise also that submissions and opening statements will be published on the committee's website following this meeting.
The Minister for Education and Skills proposes to make an order under the Employment Equality Act 1998 to enable the Church of Ireland College of Education, Rathmines, reserve places for people of its faith. The Act requires that such a draft order be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and that the order shall not be made until the resolution approving the draft has been passed by each House. The matter has been referred to the committee by both Houses for consideration. I now invite the Minister of State to make his presentation.
I am pleased to be here on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Quinn, to discuss the proposed resolutions from the Dáil and Seanad approving the draft of the order which I will be proposing.
The order seeks to reserve 32 places in the first year of the Bachelor of Education degree course in the Church of Ireland College of Education, Rathmines, for students who are members of the Church of Ireland or belong to the broad Protestant tradition. The making of the order and its laying before the Houses arises from the provisions of the Employment Equality Act 1998 and is designed to ensure that the rights and interests of colleges and schools with a Protestant ethos and the students of those schools are provided for.
The Employment Equality Act 1998 prohibits discrimination on a wide-range of grounds, including religion. While the Act deals primarily with discrimination in employment it also extends to discrimination in vocational training. Vocational training is defined as any system of instruction that enables a person to acquire the knowledge for the carrying of an occupational activity. Teacher-training falls within this definition. For many years, the Church of Ireland College of Education has provided training in primary school teaching only to students who come from the Church of Ireland and the broader Protestant tradition. The purpose of this practise is to ensure that there is available to schools under Protestant ownership a sufficient number of teachers who themselves come from a Protestant background and are trained in an institution with a Protestant ethos.
Most primary schools in the State are privately owned, publicly funded denominational schools. This system of denominational education is underpinned by the Constitution. Central to the right of the religious denominations to conduct schools with a particular ethos is their need to ensure that they have available to them a body of staff belonging to and trained in the particular religious denomination of the school. If such staff were not available, the constitutional right to free profession of religion and the conduct of denominational schools would be seriously impaired. To avoid imposing what would in effect be unconstitutional restrictions on the rights of the religious denominations in this regard section 12 of the Employment Equality Act 1998, which prohibits discrimination in vocational training, makes two exceptions. It provides that the prohibition of discrimination does not apply for the purpose of ensuring the availability of nurses and teachers to denominational hospitals and primary schools respectively.
In the case of primary schools the section provides that an educational or training body may apply to the Minister for Education and Skills for an order permitting the body to reserve places on the vocational training course. The Minister for Education and Skills, with the consent of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, may then make an order allowing the body to reserve such number of places to meet the need for teachers in primary schools as is considered appropriate. The Church of Ireland College of Education has made an application on behalf of the college for the reservation of 32 places in the college for the academic years 2013-2014 up to 2017-2018 for students who are members of recognised churches in the Protestant tradition.
The college makes the case that the reservation of 32 places, which is currently the full complement of first year places in the college, should be made in order to provide sufficient teachers for Protestant schools over the next number of years. The grounds for the request as put by the college are as follows: the necessity of providing a sufficient number of qualified primary teachers to maintain the distinctive ethos of Protestant schools remains the central concern and motivation for seeking the order; primary schools in the Protestant community depend almost exclusively on the college for the provision of an annual supply of well qualified teachers from a Protestant background; a reported continuing shortage of applicants for teaching positions in Protestant primary schools, particularly small schools in rural areas; some of those who enter the college will not complete their studies and of those who qualify some will not take up posts in schools with the Protestant ethos; also, a number of graduates go to live and work abroad while others engage in further studies.
I believe, in the circumstances set out by the college, the continuing reservation of 32 places in the college for students from the Protestant tradition appears reasonable to ensure that Protestant schools have available to them a sufficient number of teachers who share their value system and religious beliefs. Apart from the constitutional requirements from which this order flows, the order is a necessary support for the maintenance of diversity of values, beliefs and culture in our education system and Irish society. Given that schools with a Protestant ethos represent only a small minority of primary schools in the State, there is clearly a risk that that ethos could be diluted unless specific protections are provided. This order puts in place a protection which the Oireachtas considered appropriate and which will guarantee Protestant schools that they can continue to provide education for their students in accordance with their particular values and beliefs.
I acknowledge that some aspects of the environment in which the Church of Ireland College of Education operates are changing. I refer in this regard specifically to developments in relation to school patronage and the work underway on the restructuring of teacher education provision in Ireland. However, there is a continuing need for this provision to be made. The primary legislation governing the order provides that it may be revoked and any effects of these developments on the necessity for the order will be kept under review.
I thank the committee for its consideration of this important issue, which safeguards and supports the maintenance of diversity of values, beliefs and culture in our education system and Irish society.
I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending the meeting to discuss this issue. While I understand the rationale for the proposal, I would like to put two or three questions to the Minister of State. What has been the experience in recent years in terms of student in-take at the college, including the number of students from a Protestant background who took up a post in a primary school with a Protestant ethos? Is there a precedent for this provision? Is the Church of Ireland College of Education the only teacher training college with a Protestant ethos?
I would just like to make a few comments. I understand the reason for the order and the constitutional framework under which it is being introduced.
It is appropriate to say that the very basis around which we train teachers means that, in effect, it amounts to a sectarian head count throughout our teacher training colleges, and it is important for us to investigate this properly. We still have far too heavy an influence from religious institutions over the education system. It is the fundamental ethos that is in the training colleges and the vast bulk of primary and secondary schools. Any progressive, forward-thinking and enlightened society would view what we are doing today - putting aside a number of training places in a college for people of a particular faith - as particularly weird. Religious background should be of no relevance to anybody if a person wishes to become a teacher. Unfortunately, we are still standing over a position where if a person is becoming a primary school teacher in this country, unless that person is willing to pay over the odds by using the Hibernia College online course, he or she must tick a box on religious faith. Applicants to the majority of primary schools must also answer a pretty invasive question on faith and what religious ethos the person will stand over.
I have no difficulty with what is being introduced because it is, on the face of it, in line with the Constitution and without a constitutional change, our hands are tied. Nevertheless, we should have a conversation about what we are asking of our young teachers and continually providing for in this State and Republic. Effectively, the most important thing that seems to be asked of any individual is about religious background. That relates to teachers, students and other practitioners in the educational field. It sticks in my craw that we return to the issue repeatedly.
I respect the position in which we find ourselves but will the Minister of State comment on whether an amendment is in train with regard to the Employment Equality Act? It would argue that State-funded religious institutions - either hospitals or schools - should not discriminate based on somebody's sexuality or private life if it could conflict with the ethos of the body. How would that have an impact on training colleges?
I welcome the Minister of State's presentation this afternoon. We have all had representations from parents and boards of management of Protestant schools with regard to this issue and there is a view among those on Protestant boards of management that there are more constitutional supports for some children than others. It would be a very serious matter if that was the case. That has been alleged in meetings and letters received from Protestant boards of management. Are we proposing a different set of rights for Protestant and other denominations of children? It is important that Protestant schools are treated equally, as claims are being made to Members in different constituencies that this is not the case. I have received numerous letters from parents and boards of management across the midlands outlining concerns about a change in policy by the Government in the school system.
As Deputy Bannon intimated, it seems to be more of a question of what type of education is being given to our children, as parents expect a certain quality. They should not feel they need to go to a private school to get a better education or meet the right shakers and movers. As a society, we should deliver an education for every child equally, and it must be of a high standard.
If particular schools want to present a certain religious ethos, is there not space for them? The Minister of State has indicated that under the Constitution this order must be made, which is fair enough. If a school wants to promote a particular religion, it should have to fund the education of a teacher who comes in to practise a religious point, and other education should be given in a secular environment. If parents or religious groups want to present a certain ethos to their children, the State should not have to support that. It should be down to particular schools funding teachers who will educate the children in such religious matters. It is bizarre to have to go through the process.
Deputy McConalogue's first question was about places and all 32 places have been taken and it has happened three times. I did not really understand the third question and perhaps I misheard it. There is a philosophical element in this, I suppose, and if I am reading the interventions by Deputies Ó Ríordáin, Collins and Bannon correctly, there seems to be an issue with whether the State should provide wholly for education of primary and post-primary levels, or if there should be what could loosely be called a subvention for provision at schools where there is a particular religious ethos. We are all aware of the particular provision proposed here, which is to ensure we can guarantee the teaching ethos through the Protestant tradition. We would not necessarily disagree with that.
Speaking personally, one could argue that religious formation for any citizen could take place through a Sunday school mechanism or outside normal teaching hours. Nevertheless, the State provides for a number of hours, which is probably a vagary of our history of a strong Catholic ethos with other minority religions. The education sector in Finland has 97% of schools within the state sector and religious formation is extraneous to the process. The majority of the schools are within the public sphere.
Ireland is a particular country with a specific history and traditions, so there is an historical narrative in that regard. It is a question of where we are moving. Are we looking to divest ourselves of any State intervention with schools of a particular ethos? That is a particular philosophical question with which we must grapple. I have a particular policy responsibility for science, technology, engineering and maths, and if members are asking me whether I believe we should spend more time in schools teaching in those areas than preparing for certain aspects of religious formation, I know I would prefer to invest the time in teaching core subjects. That is a personal opinion.
I sense from the committee that there is no difficulty with the provision being proposed. In response to Deputy Bannon, there is no different set of rights.
We are recognising a minority ethos and ensuring it is protected in terms of pedagogy, teaching and ensuring the supply of teachers, and we are doing it in a structured way.
This has come across in the board of management meetings I have attended and in consultations parents have had with me in my constituency offices. There is a view that we are proposing to have different sets of rights for children. Parents feel strongly about this policy. They pay the same taxes and abide by the same Constitution, but they feel there is an element of discrimination in those proposals. I am conveying the message I have been getting from boards of management and parents.
I have a query regarding the Employment Equality Act 1998. Has there been such an order by the Minister previously? If this has not been in place for the past while, and given that there are 32 places in the college, has there been a problem obtaining a sufficient throughput of teachers who wish to teach in Protestant schools as part of that 32? I presume there must be if the order is considered necessary, as it has not been in place previously.
There is a continuing need and not all 32 graduates necessarily end up within the Protestant sector. Some will go to Educate Together schools and some have even gone to Roman Catholic schools. It is about ensuring the need is met on a continuing basis. That is the fundamental aspect of this.
The Minister asked if we are moving towards a particular ethos. The question asked by the Deputies is a very good one. Should the State be responsible for religious education or should religious education be something independent of the schools? I understand the Protestant teacher training college, Mater Dei and other such colleges are coming under the auspices of DCU, which is a non-denominational university. When questioned about this recently, the college's representatives were delighted to be able to say that people could train to become teachers in whatever way they wanted, in the sense that if they wished to work in a Catholic, Islamic, Jewish or Protestant school one could avail of that tributary, as it were, within the education structure. Am I correct on that, particularly within the new four-year programme for teacher training? That might allay many fears with regard to holding onto a certain ethos yet living within a different type of secular regime.
That is my point, generally. Each one of these teacher training colleges would have been very independent and somewhat isolated and now they are coming under DCU and a different ethos. However, they also have the tributaries of their own ethoses to hold onto within the new four-year teacher training programme.
Yes. Historically, teacher training was very much aligned to particular traditions, even within the Catholic ethos. There were varying traditions in distinct geographical locations. Personally, I believe we must move to a teacher training paradigm that is more reflective of Irish society and more pluralist in its approach, while ensuring there are inherent guarantees for a minority ethos that probably needs a certain protection. This is evolving. As Irish society evolves, the restructuring of teacher training evolves. Even the debate about patronage is evolving. There has never really been a big debate in Ireland about patronage. It is about parents looking at their own religious beliefs and where they want their children to go in terms of religious formation-----
-----and having choice.
I hope I answered all of the questions. I apologise if I have not. Deputy Ó Ríordáin mentioned the issue of sexuality and equality. That does not have a bearing on this provision in terms of the equality Act, as I understand it. One's sexuality is a matter for one's self. I hope I understood correctly the point he was making. It has no bearing on this provision.