The Most Reverend Dr. John Neill
Archbishop of Dublin & Bishop of Glendalough
Primate of Ireland
It is less than fair for any Government to use cuts to implement policies that it has neither signalled nor given an opportunity for a real engagement to take place. This is precisely what is happening in the Department of Education and Science. We are already experiencing the reality that at a stroke of a pen, long respected and well-tried mechanisms are being changed beyond recognition. This has occurred in the case of the Protestant Secondary Schools which have been put into a different category of funding that will in the end put some, if not all of them, out of business. Those that survive will only do so by charging excessive fees, thereby excluding the very community they were founded to serve.
It is my distinct impression that the re-classification of the Protestant schools was not driven by financial considerations. It was driven by what amounts to a very determined and doctrinaire effort within the Department of Education and Science to strike at a sector which some officials totally failed to understand. Previous governments, whether single party, or coalitions including different combinations of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Democratic Left and the Progressive Democrats, each understood and treated these schools in a fair manner. The same cannot be said of the present Fianna Fáil / Green Party coalition.
Provision for scattered minority communities and for large majority communities will always have to be different. This is true in every aspect of life, be it education, transport or health. This is precisely what Irish Governments until now have always attempted to grasp. It is only now that what was once seen as realism in relation to different and complex situations is being described simply as “an anomaly”. Furthermore religious communities, be they Roman Catholic or Protestant, have made and continue to make a huge contribution to the provision of education. The State has been dependent on that contribution down the generations and still is to a large extent. But widespread dependence on schools of the majority religious ethos requires that alternatives are catered for. A minority is as entitled to schools under their own patronage as much as is the majority. There is no conflict between the needs of either. The support of the Roman Catholic sector has been much appreciated as we seek to defend the Protestant sector. For economic and practical reasons, it was found to be best to provide for the Protestant schools in a particular way. This allowed them to remain independent and charge fees. At the same time they received essential ancillary grants, and also the normal capitation grants for pupils, but in the form of the Block Grant. This is administered not indiscriminately but in a very strictly means-tested manner. The frequent mention of the Block Grant and its maintenance is misleading – this is not a privilege, it is I repeat simply the individual capitation grants paid together with a fifteen per cent reduction.
The sudden transfer of these schools from the special category related to the free sector into what is a private fee-paying sector is what is grossly unfair. The future of the schools is threatened by not only the loss of much funding that they had for many years, but also by the changes in the pupil teacher ratio. These two changes, changing the pupil/teacher ratio and withdrawing funding, will not only cost jobs but actually make some schools no longer viable in quite a short span of time.
I am not suggesting for one moment that cuts that are right across the board in these times, and which we are told will get worse, should not affect these schools. We are not asking to escape, that would be both wrong and foolish. What I am saying is that the recent placing of the Protestant schools in a different category – in the category of privilege – that is the category of those who in spite of the provision of free schooling in their own tradition opt for private schooling – is to ignore the real nature of those who attend our schools.
Last week, the Minister said: “I believe the measures that differentiated between those schools with fee income and those with no fee income were fairer all round”.
I am now responding to the Minister’s statement, and especially because he has repeated on several occasions that he wishes to hear from the Bishops and from the Secondary Education Committee. Again and again, in response to the Minister we have made our proposal – that the status quo ante be reinstated. Our schools should be treated, as they always have been, as block grant schools within the free scheme. We have responded, but in doing so now in public once again – I expand it in three ways:
FIRST, one cannot call it fair to place in the one category the two distinct groups which I have just mentioned. The first group is made up of Protestant parents whatever their means, and many of them are very poor, and I mean very poor indeed, who sacrifice much in order to send their children to a school of their own tradition. No cheaper alternative is available sharing a Protestant ethos. There are only five Protestant comprehensive schools in the Republic, and three of these are in this diocese. Some of these schools cannot even take all the Protestant children in their catchment area. The second group – that with which the Protestant schools are being lumped together – is made up of those who in spite of free schools available in their own tradition and in their locality, actually opt to send their children to a private fee-paying school. Obviously there is some blurring of the distinction in some large city schools, but an open policy on enrolment where possible is bound to throw up some anomalies.
The Protestant Community in Ireland is very mixed, ranging right across the sociological spectrum, and of course in terms of income. This attempt by the Minister to place all Protestants into a category of privilege – suggesting that they have chosen private education – is manifestly unjust.
SECOND, the fee income to which the Minister refers provides the necessary funding for running the school which would otherwise be supplied by the State as in the so-called free sector. Incidentally this free sector is not free of all fees in every such State school. Payments in such schools are simply called “voluntary contributions” provided by parents – and indeed without them, many of the schools could not continue. If all fee-paying schools in the State were to close and move into the system of free Education, the State would face a substantially larger educational bill than it does at the present time. The fact of the matter is that this concession about fees was a way that was found to cope with providing for the minority churches.
THIRD – the Protestant Secondary Schools are not elitist, they are not selective, except that they have to give priority to children of their own tradition. These schools are inclusive of those with special needs, often to a very high extent. These schools have to provide for a range of children from a wider range of backgrounds than other sectors – to provide for those with high academic expectations as well as those who need to concentrate on the practical subjects. One school principal recently described all these schools as being comprehensive with a small ‘c’.
The Minister and the Department of Education and Science have in effect sent a message to the Protestant community which we as citizens of this State did not expect to hear.
In relation to Education, I must also mention concerns that the Church of Ireland College of Education is at grave risk of loosing its funding, if not in the short term, certainly in the longer term. The primary schools of this State have always been a co-operative effort between the Churches and the State. The State became involved in what is basically a Church system of education. There are of course now alternatives to this model, but it still remains by far the largest system. Most of the primary schools are not owned by the State, though the newer ones often are. The State has benefited by both the system of Patronage and local Boards of Management which are heavily dependent on the local church communities. In return the churches have been able to maintain their own ethos in these schools – though I am not suggesting for one moment that this is the only model that the State should support. However unless the State can afford at this juncture to set up an entirely independent system, it simply cannot ignore the fact that teachers have to be trained for the couple of hundred schools within the ethos of the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland College of Education is the natural accompaniment of this system of education in the State. However it also provides training in Special Needs Education right across the board for teachers and Special Needs Assistants. It specializes in a major way in the provision of initial professional development for teachers who work in small schools where they teach multi-level classes.
To simply cut off its funding is not the way to make either a community or our schools feel that they have any value whatever.
The ongoing use by the Department of Education and Science of the designation “small colleges” in relation to the Church of Ireland, Fröbel and Marino Colleges is a failure to grasp the point that these colleges are distinctive, each in different ways. To group colleges merely by size is meaningless in this context. As I have already argued, this same misuse of terminology is used in relation to secondary schools, where the designation “fee-paying” has been made a key characteristic.
It is very important that I am heard clearly on this. I am not objecting to cuts in principle; so long as such cuts are fair and just, and do not simply wipe out a whole sector. I am not suggesting that the Church of Ireland College of Education should not have to face the same stringency as is felt right across the third level sector of education, but I am stating that the suggested annihilation of that College sends a very sad message to the Church of Ireland community.