Thursday, 7 May 2009
John Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
I welcome the Minister. I am sorry that the Minister for Education and Science is not here to discuss this very important issue which has raised its head in recent months. For the sake of a saving which is paltry in the context of the current crisis, the Minister has taken a course of action that will disproportionately and deeply affect a particular community. In the haste to cut and run, he found what he supposed was a soft target and saved the grand total of €2.8 million. Rashly, he has overturned an established settlement and angered a community. I do not accuse the Minister of ill-intent but rather a lack of reflection and rash action, and I urge him to take time to reflect more carefully on whether this is a saving we can afford.
Since the foundation of the State, men and women of goodwill of all parties have striven to ensure that this nation would be a comfortable and welcoming home to all its citizens. At times we have failed in our duty to the Protestant community in this regard, but on the whole a young and poor country did its best. One of the success stories has been the recognition and support given to those schools which reflect the faith and values of our minorities. When the then Minister, Donogh O'Malley, introduced free education he understood that, for it to be a real rather than notional achievement, special regard would have to be given to those churches whose membership was spread thinly but more or less evenly throughout the State.
Our Constitution separates church and State but it also recognises the role of faith in society and the central right of parents to have their children educated in schools that share their values. As Deputy Hanafin said when she was Minister for Education and Science, "Since the foundation of the State, all parties and all Governments have supported such schools, largely to protect choice and the ethos of minorities." The attack by the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, on Protestant schools will have consequences which will make that choice more notional than practical. We will see a reduction in teacher numbers, an increase in class sizes, a diminution of subject choice and, ultimately, an increase in fees. The corrosive effect on the quality of education being offered by schools which today are excellent would be disastrous.
The Minister is quoted as saying he sees no reason that Protestant fee-paying schools should be treated differently from Roman Catholic ones. If that is his position, he needs to think again. Does he truly believe the same variety of school choice is available to Protestant parents as to those who send their children to Clongowes Wood College or Blackrock College? What about Wexford, Offaly, Laois, Clare, Tipperary, Kerry, Mayo, Leitrim, Longford and Westmeath? Half the counties in the Republic have no Protestant secondary schools. Does the Minister really believe this is analogous to Roman Catholic schools?
Outside the family, schools are the most important vehicle that exists for a minority to maintain its confessional identity and cohesion as a faith community. If this State is to be truly pluralist and value diversity in practice and not simply in theory, it cannot afford to be so careless in its treatment of Protestant schools.
There are those who welcome this measure. There are those who see it as a victory for a change in the organisation of Irish education. Before being flattered by siren voices, I advise the Minister to examine the sources of such support and then to sup with a long spoon. Some hope this move presages the first in a series that would question the role of faith in our schools of any colour. We have heard the usual suspects advocate the nationalisation and standardisation of all our schools. They call for the destruction of denominational education as sectarian and out of step with modernity. They disingenuously persuade us that excluding religion from our schools is a neutral choice rather than the explicit value judgment that it is. These most illiberal of liberals would take choice from the hands of parents where it properly resides, and give it over to a single State apparatus. The separation of church and State protects the state from theocracy but also protects the churches from the interference of the State. By extension, it protects the religion and practice of the citizen from control of the State. Just as we do not want the State in our bedrooms nor do we want it in our churches. Pluralism does not lie in the suppression of all difference and a McDonald's system of schooling, always the same everywhere. Difference is not dissonance. In the life of a nation as in music, variety of notes, tones and pitch makes for melody and true harmony. Pluralism is in the happy and respectful co-existence of diversity. I was in Gorey recently where there are five thriving primary schools, two Catholic, one Church of Ireland, a Gaelscoil and an Educate Together. That is the joy of our parent-led system which can offer real value choice to parents. I believe that with time this kind of choice will extend across the country and give us an even better and more vibrant educational system.
That will only happen if the Minister and this Government commit to the value of diversity. It will only happen if the Minister believes the ethos of a school is intrinsic to it and is just as important as maths or physics in a child's education. As Dean Inge said, "The aim of education is the knowledge not of fact, but of values". For many Protestant parents, clearly the ethos of the school their children attend is far from a tack-on or a mere adjunct but lies at the core of the education they wish for their off-spring. I urge the Minister to think again and respect the needs of these parents and children.