A friend of mine who's relatively friendly to the liberal wing to the Irish catholic church (though he admits to doubts as to whether this wing has effective existence anymore) recently told me more or less this about the typical Irish parent of the hoi polloi: "they do nothing but complain about church high-handedness, secrecy and dirty-mindedness, won't get involved in church activities nor make any effort to change it from within (it is after all their church), but when the time comes that Johnnie or Aisling has to go to school, they expect the church to come running as it always did".
Now there were so many levels on which he had got it wrong, I was inclined out of concern for both our pockets to let him away with it (he had rung me from the midlands on my mobile in Berlin), but I couldn't resist the temptation to put him right on one proven fact: the idea that the vast majority of Irish people want denominational education for their children is nothing but a myth. It is even possible that it's been nothing but a myth for a very long time. I told him about a survey on the subject (see next paragraph). He simply didn't believe me.
In late summer 2004 there was a minor blip on the media radar when The Educational Research Centre, a crowd of education specialists based at St Patrick's College up in Drumcondra beside Bertie and the Archbishop of Dublin, published the results of a survey on attitudes of the Irish public on education. Attentive Questions & Answers viewers may have a vague memory of the General Secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, Msgr. Dan O'Connor declaring from the audience (rather defensively it seemed to me) that the majority of parents were satisfied the current system of education in Ireland. [I'm nearly sure it was Q&A but I can't find the programme on the Q&A site, if anyone can send me a link (or put me right) I'd be very grateful.]
Dan O'Connor was right. It would be pretty shocking if a greater number of people were less than unhappy about the Irish education system. But the figures are quite impressive: more than 69% of respondents were either completely or somewhat satisfied with primary schools and 72% with secondary schools (only about 10 and a half percent were dissatisfied in both cases). Have a look at Table 17, page 33 of the report (for which you'll need a pdf reader). This was the source of justifiable pride for Dan. Though when you look at the distribution of those completely satisfied (16 to 19 percent) and those only somewhat satisfied (50 to 55%) it becomes clear that few enough thought the current system was perfect.
What got less coverage (and what Dan didn't mention) was a more surprising finding, which neatly illustrates one of the ways that Irish people think their education system is less than perfect. At a time when over 98% of primary and secondary schools in the country are denominational, 61% of interviewees agreed (either strongly or somewhat) that schools should not be denominational (about 25.5% disagreed and 13 and a half percent didn't have an opinion). Check out Table 20 on page 35. Almost 50% of respondents agreed that denominational religious instruction should not form part of the school day at all, and should be exclusively imparted outside school hours (only 35 and a half percent disagreed, and the rest didn't have an opinion).
This surprising data is weakened just a tadge when respondents are asked the same question with a wording presented the other way around: "Groups of parents should have the right to be provided with separate schools that reflect their culture and/or their views on religion" (i.e. the status quo). About 46% agreed with the same number against (though the number in strong disagreement was almost twice as large as the number in strong agreement). Obviously the way the question is framed will strongly affect data on the preferences of Irish people in relation to the participation of religious groups in education.
But there is no getting away from the fact that (unless there was some severe methodological fault in the survey) about half the population of Ireland are opposed to the model of education that dominates the country. In other words, at the very least a plurality of Irish parents, far from expecting the Catholic Church to provide education for their children, would really rather they didn't.
The problem at the moment, of course, is that at the moment they have no choice.
More recently (in March of this year, in preparation for a conference the were organising in defence of denominational education, which took place on 4 April last), David Quinn's IONA Institute got pollers Red C to do a similar exercise (perhaps in the hope that the Educational Research Centre had got it wrong, who knows?).
From what's available to this blogger, the results seem essentially identical to the 2004 data (including the observation that the whole subject is extremely sensitive to how the relevant questions are framed). But the spin that Iona put on the findings is would make you dizzy (go to the IONA site, click on News and go to 26/03/08 -- "Iona poll shows large majority support parental choice in education" to see the press release for yourself). The headline chosen for their press release was that an overwhelming 73% of the Irish people are in favour of having parental choice in education, with parents being even more heavily in favour of having a choice (78%).
To make this banal fact look interesting Iona included an allegation that John Carr of the INTO disagrees with 78% of parents, and favours a "one-size-fits-all" system "to promote social integration". Now I'm not sure, but I think what they're referring to is an opinion piece by Carr published on the INTO website on 25 March (though I suppose Quinn could have had a chat with him over a pint). If I'm right, Iona's characterisation of his remarks is a gross misrepresentation of what he said. He says absolutely nothing that could be interpreted in this way. He simply opposes any veto by the church on people employed to teach religious education and calls for an open discussion forum on religious education. There is perhaps a clue here to what Iona objects to in his view. Is the veto what Iona want to protect? They certainly don't say so.
Whatever about that, the "one-size-fits-all" model is a paper tiger. No-one worth listening to advocates anything like what that expression conjures up.
Now I haven't got access to the raw data of the Red C survey, but it is interesting that Iona couldn't distill from it anything more useful to their case than the unastounding observation that parents want choice (who doesn't?). Their press release is an indication that the results were bad news for them. Luckily, the relaease does tell us something useful: that 37% favoured state-run schools where all religions are taught (as against 47% who preferred catholic schools) and "only" 11% preferred schools where no religion is taught.
Quinn, in a non-sequitur of Rónán Mullenian proportions (read the press release if you don't believe me) interprets the result as follows: "... there is very little support for those who want to replace publicly funded denominational schools with State-run multi-denominational or non-denominational schools".
What? A total of 48% percent prefer multi or non-denominational schooling (currently provided in 2 to 3% of schools).
What's more, of the 37% who want all religions taught in schools, there is no indication as to whether this teaching is to be primarily denominational religious instruction (aka indoctrination) of children into the religion of their respective parents (which is what IONA wants) or the simply provision of information and discussion opportunities on religion as a human phenomenon (which, is clearly what many parents mean to say). Indeed there is no indication as to whether parents who want denominational religious instruction want it provided as part of the normal school day, or outside regular hours.
Okay, according to the survey (and again, we don't know the exact wording used) the most popular choice is catholic schooling, but 95% of schools are currently catholic, which would seem rather excessive to cater for 49% of parents (though presumably such parents will on average have slightly more children than those more interested in their children mixing in -- I don't know the precise figures). What's clear, despite Quinn's inexplicable interpretation, is that according to parents there are far too many catholic schools and far too few non or multi-denominational ones.
I've asked IONA to send me technical details on the survey, so I'll let you know if I get some explanation. Don't hold your collective or individual breaths.
Of course, the Indo, having their own in-house IONA contact (Quinn himself) reported the news exactly as IONA wanted it reported.
Weirdly, Quinn himself is on the record having given up on a monopolistic role in education for his church. In fairness, he knows that the game is up. This would suggest his absurd denial that there is a demand for non-catholic schools has been forced on him (perhaps by a collective of croziers or simply by the head-in-the-sand Mullenites). It's certainly not what he believes. If this Indo article is anything to go by, what he does advocate is a strategic withdrawal by the church into teaching only for the minority of parents who want to send their children to catholic denominational schools, withdrawing from a proportional number of schools and taking the maximum possible amount of resources with them: "If it turns out that 70% of parents today don't want a robust Catholic ethos in their kids' schools, then they need to get out of 70% of schools. The logistics of this could be worked out with the State, which would have to somehow compensate the Church for handing over so much property."
Well, not quite 70% have given up on denominational education yet, but his view is clear.
A more popular strategy by church sympathisers, if recent press is to be believed, is to defend "multi" rather than "non-denominational schooling", thus keeping a foot in the door for the church through in-school religious teaching and allowing them to control the religious education curriculum of 'catholic' children, to the extent of claiming power of veto over teachers of religion. In primary schools, as Carr points out, teachers teach everything, so this is effectively claiming power of veto over all teaching appointments. The question naturally arises: is the unfounded misrepresentation of Carr as favouring some monolithic, inflexible educational conveyor belt connected to his well-argued opposition to this veto?
All Iona's disingenuous posing is done in the name of parental choice. Despite the attempts to muddy the waters, it's clear that neither Iona nor their religious superiors could give a tuppenny damn about parental choice. Their extraordinary analysis of the results of a survey they themselves commissioned proves that in education they are simply in the business of preserving church power.
When the state eases the church out of a large proportion of the schools in the country, as it sooner or later surely must, it should be sure that the church is compensated fairly, and no more than fairly. More concretely, they should keep in mind that, while the church ended up owning most of such schools, they were mostly paid for by the taxpayer. The Dept of Education and Science should buck their past record in negotiating with the church, and drive as hard a bargain as they possibly can.
What's more, the new model and the new religious education curriculum should be based on what parents want and not just well-financed lobbies and the long-established and at least partially church-sponsored educational establishment like St Patrick's College and the rest. It should do what Iona did -- ask parents. But, unlike Iona, it should listen to what they say.
Incidentally, in relation to vetos over teachers, the European Commission seems to have given up on its plans to take Ireland to the European Court for allowing discrimination against non-catholics in catholic schools. Its grounds for doing so are apparently that it doesn't want to antagonise Irish voters before the Lisbon referendum. Judging by the results of Red C's Iona poll, the Commission's decision not to enforce European law on employment rights is likely going to antagonise as many Irish voters as its original decision to pursue its case.