John Walshe | Opinion | Irish Independent | 30.05.17

The RC Church's influence on schools

If a religious congregation can opt out of a new maternity hospital so readily, will the Catholic Church do the same in education?

That's the question being asked after the Sisters of Charity announced that it is ending involvement in the St Vincent's Healthcare Group.

The Church's role in Irish hospitals is significant but pales in comparison with its influence in primary and second-level schools.

Only 4pc of primary schools are under non-religious patronage with around 90pc under the direct patronage of the Catholic Church and the remaining 6pc under other religions.

This at a time when one in 10 people in the recent Census reported that they were non religious, and one-in-three marriages now takes place outside of any religion.

It may not be as intense as the controversy over the planned involvement of nuns in a maternity hospital, but in education there is a growing sense that "something must be done" about lessening the Church's role and control.

Quite what will be done remains to be seen. Both Ministers Quinn and O'Sullivan pushed the 'divestment' agenda where surveys were carried out to see if there was support for a change of patronage. If there was, then the local Catholic bishop was expected to nominate a school for closure and transfer to a different patron.

Divestment was too much for many in the Church, and it usually evoked the NIMBY response - Not In My Back Yard. Even if the local bishop was supportive, there were often complex legal issues of ownership, the State's "lein" on the property, and local feelings to overcome, and they weren't in most cases.

The current Education Minister, Richard Bruton, is trying a somewhat different tack, which relies on what he calls the 'live transfer' of schools and leases. That won't be easily achieved.

Ironically yesterday Mr Bruton was meeting Church and other representatives at a forum in Croke Park where they were discussing schools admissions and what's known as the 'baptism barrier'.

An outright legal ban on religion being a consideration in schools that are oversubscribed would provoke a lot of opposition from Fine Gael members, many parents and minority religions. It would also be challenged in the courts.

It may be easier to make political progress on Church-school issues under a Fine Gael education minister than it was under a Labour minister, but progress with the Church is a different matter.

But will Mr Bruton remain in education, assuming that Leo Varadkar - whom he supports - wins the Fine Gael prize? Mr Bruton has long had his eye on finance but that looks a certainty for Paschal Donohoe. His second choice may be to remain in education, a portfolio he clearly relishes, even if he is driving some officials up the walls with his never ending series of action plans and action points. "We need to tell him we are not producing widgets," as one education insider quipped.

Whether Mr Bruton stays or not, something has to give to diversify our schools.

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