Wednesday, 21 May 2008
The pastoral letter from the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, Vision 08, that was published last week represents a valuable and welcome contribution to wider dialogue on the overall governance challenge that faces us in seeking to meet future school needs.
The rapid pace of social and demographic change in Ireland is reflected in a radically altered and more diverse society from which our school communities are drawn. Schools under the patronage of the Catholic church have been to the fore in welcoming and accommodating the new diversity. That commitment to community has been at the core of the Catholic school system for many generations and has been a source of immense strength both to the education system itself and to our wider social fabric. The continuing commitment that is expressed in the pastoral letter to opening Catholic schools to children of all denominations and backgrounds is welcome. It is entirely appropriate also that Catholic schools should seek to reflect their own distinctive vision and philosophy.
As the pastoral letter points out, the Catholic church in Ireland played a significant role in the success of the introduction of free post-primary education in 1967. More recently, the church has had to meet the challenge of securing the future of the ethos of its second level schools at a time when the role of members of the orders in day to day management is greatly diminished as a result of falling numbers of religious.
At primary school level we have seen a growing diversity of patronage choice in recent years in response to evolving parental demand, with a significant growth of inter-denominational and multi-denominational schools. More recently, the Government has agreed to pilot a new model of patronage that directly involves the State, through the vocational education committee sector. This community national school model will welcome children of diverse faith and non-faith backgrounds. Within this changing landscape, the vast majority of primary schools are, and will continue to be, Catholic in ethos. As the largest patron group in the education system, the contribution of the church to debate and dialogue on how the system should evolve to respond to changing societal circumstances is essential.
These issues have featured strongly in the ongoing structured dialogue between the Government and the churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations in Ireland.
I apologise but I wanted to mention the national conference, and we all realise the importance of that.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
It is also my intention to host a one day national conference on 27 June, involving each of the patron bodies and wider interests, to consider the governance challenge for meeting future primary education needs. The pastoral letter published by the bishops provides a very positive input to our collective consideration of these issues and I commend them for the leadership role that they have taken in advancing their vision of the future.
I would not like to be up against the Leas-Cheann Comhairle in the classroom.
The Minister is right. It was a welcome and positive contribution from the Catholic hierarchy, effectively putting forward a White Paper in terms of the way forward. Will the Minister not agree that the Government and his Department have failed to put forward a similar vision in terms of new patronage models? The last paragraph of his reply refers to a one day conference but will he not agree this issue is too big for a one day conference and that what we need is a national forum on education where all of the issues concerning management, control, patronage and governance could be examined in a much more public way than is currently the case? I ask the Minister to reconsider the proposal for a one day conference because it is not acceptable that a one day conference that would examine these fundamental questions would be organised by the Department.
The Government has been active and progressive in examining the patronage and governance in schools issue. The one day conference is an important venture in that it will bring all the stakeholders together to allow all the views and issues pertinent to this particular issue to be brought into the public domain and discussed. It does not mean, for instance, that the one day conference is the end of the matter. I would see it as being the fulcrum from which further debate can take place and the further accommodation of the diverse views in terms of patronage. I hope the Deputy will find at all times that this will be a listening Department and one that will learn from the suggestions being made because it is in the interests of all of us, Government and Opposition, to learn from what will accrue from that one day conference.
In his initial reply the Minister referred to the pilot scheme for west Dublin where two new schools will be under the patronage of County Dublin Vocational Education Committee, as the Minister is aware. I welcome that but am I correct in saying the education (patronage) Bill has yet to be published? There is no chance it will passed by this House and the other House if it has not been published by the summer. These two new schools — it was to be three — will be open in west Dublin on 1 September, with teachers and students in place, under the control and patronage of County Dublin VEC. How are those schools legally based when the legislation effectively introducing the new pilot model has not gone through these Houses?