In 2009 the Catholic Schools Partnership was established as an umbrella body for all the partners in Catholic schools. One of its aims is to plan for broader provision of primary education in response to parental demand. Following on the publication of data by the Department of Education and Skills in 2010 on areas where the Catholic Patron might consider divesting of some schools, the Catholic Schools Partnership undertook three steps:
- Further qualitative analysis of parental understandings of school patronage;
- The publication of a position paper and the invitation to individuals and organisations to respond;
- Internal consultation within the Church with parents, patrons, teachers, priests, pastoral council members, pupils, assessors, trustees and managers.
The results of this three-step process were presented at four regional assemblies in May/June 2011 in Knock, Kells, Dublin and Adare. 237 participants discussed the findings, prioritised issues and identified the next steps to be taken. Reports on all of these deliberations, along with the research findings and consultations are available on the Catholic Schools Partnership website (www.catholicschools.ie).
The research with parents clearly establishes the following.
- Parents choose a primary school for their child based on geographical proximity and prior knowledge of that school’s quality.
- Patronage is not a word widely known by parents; ethos and the teaching of religious education are identified as the defining elements of the Church’s involvement in primary education.
- The preparation of children for sacraments is a vital part of the parents’ understanding of a Catholic school as they identify the Catholic nature of the school with first communion and confirmation.
- School governance structures such as patronage and Boards of Management are not widely understood.
- Most parents make little connection between the daily running of the school and the relationship between Boards of Management, Patrons and the Department of Education and Skills.
- Parental understandings of their child’s school are thus highly localised and involve different levels of interaction with the local Church community.
The consultation within the Church with patrons, teachers, priests, pastoral council members, pupils, assessors, trustees and managers found consensus on many key issues:
Identity of Catholic schools
- The Catholic school has unique identifiable characteristics and is considered valid and valued in modern Ireland.
- The Catholic school is inclusive and continues to meet the needs of the local community, in particular, the needs of the marginalised in our society.
- The primacy of parents’ role in the faith development of their children was recognised. Some parents need to reflect seriously on this responsibility.
- Parents’ right to choose the type of school for their children was acknowledged.
- Provision of school choice was perceived to be achievable in urban areas, whereas this was not considered to be the case for rural areas.
- Catholic schools continue to do a very good job in the face of significant challenges to the evangelising mission of schools.
- The Church has a responsibility to support teachers’ faith development.
- There is need for a review of the RE programme.
- Parish systems need urgent attention if they are to be sustained into the future.
- Sacramental preparation in schools and parishes needs systemic review.
- Programmes to support adult faith development need to be devised.
- Leadership and communication within the Catholic Church needs to be improved.
- The Catholic school can be re-launched with a more contemporary image.
- Care needs to be taken to ensure Catholic schools don’t become elitist.
- There is strong commitment to the continuation of Catholic primary schools.
Participants at the four regional assemblies in May/June 2011 reviewed the results of the research and consultations undertaken by the CSP. There was consensus that such assemblies were of real value and that similar conversations need to be held at diocesan, parish and school level. The report on the assemblies is available at (www.catholicschools.ie).
The Council of the CSP has identified the following ten outcomes on the basis of its research and consultations:
- The CSP will publish a brief, engaging and reader friendly statement on ‘What is a Catholic School’ to be distributed to all such schools. Copies of the CSP position paper should also be available in schools for distribution to parents and teachers.
- To facilitate a deeper understanding of what it is to be a Catholic school in Ireland in 2011 and to prepare the way for a change in patronage where that would be appropriate, the CSP will provide schools with a dynamic self-evaluation tool. This will facilitate schools in reflecting on their identity and priorities with all of the school community: parents, pupils, staff, members of the board and the local community.
- This self-evaluation process should take place in the school year 2011-2012. The results will provide examples of good practice with regard to developing school ethos while also identifying areas of difficulty and concern. The CSP website will make examples of good practice available.
- The new Boards of Management which will soon be appointed will need support in reflecting on issues related to school identity and ethos.
- Teachers in Catholic schools need and deserve in-service on the ethos of the school and the Religious Education programme.
- A new curriculum in Religious Education would be most helpful as it could deal many of the concerns that need to be addressed. The CSP welcomes the fact that such a curriculum is currently being developed.
- A protocol should be agreed on the timing of Religious Education class in primary schools. This protocol should identify best practice with regard to parents who, on conscientious grounds, do not wish their child to receive religious formation.
- The mutual relationships of school, home and parish should be re-imagined. This should be done in the context of the new National Directory on Catechesis – Share the Good News. The process could begin with the Parish Pastoral Council making formal contact with the schools within its area. Over time the parish identity of schools will be strengthened and the parish community will grow in awareness of its faith formation responsibilities to all of its members from early childhood through to mature adulthood.
- Since some parents wish to have their children initiated into the Catholic Church (through the sacraments of baptism, eucharist and confirmation) while they themselves are not active participants in the parish community, there is a need to develop an opt-in process for sacramental preparation. This should begin with baptism.
- Catholic schools have an important role to play in the future of Irish education. They can be proud of their inheritance but, in a radically changed context, we must encourage them to look to the future with dynamism and commitment. In this new cultural context every Catholic school needs to redefine its identity so that it is not just reacting to the latest trend or fashion but that it can truly articulate its self-understanding. In reflecting on what it is to be a Catholic school in 2011 account must be taken of sociological and demographic realities which impinge on the everyday life of the school. Thus such schools will vary as they respond to the needs of the local communities in which they are embedded whilst in a more secular society they will need to strengthen their links with the local parish. In this way we can look forward to fewer Catholic schools but with an enhanced identity.