22/09/06 Launch of a Graduate Diploma in Education in DCU

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Speaking Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of all Ireland
at the launch of a Graduate Diploma in Education in DCU.

DCU, 22nd Sept 2006


The Irish school system, despite all its weaknesses and the lack of investment to which the recent OECD report drew attention, has served the country well.  It is important to pinpoint inadequacies in our country’s investment and policies in education. It is equally important to pay tribute to those teachers who have worked in difficult situations to ensure that every boy or girl under their care, with their individual talents and problems, really could become the person that God wants them to be and together become a new generation of which we can all be proud.
As a society we have much to be grateful for in our teachers.  But gratitude would be empty if it was not accompanied by a desire to ensure that the profession of teaching receives the economic and above all the social recognition it deserves.   There is strong evidence that any lowering of the social status of teachers has serious detrimental effects on the quality of education. Social status is not identical with economic recognition, but both are interlinked.  I would be concerned, for example, by reports that teachers are among the group of public servants who are finding it increasingly difficult to purchase a home in many of the large cities in which they work.
Living abroad as I did for many years, many people asked me what was the key to Ireland recent remarkable economic progress.  I always responded immediately: “in the first place, the educational system”.   That might seem strange from someone of my generation who went through a less adequate school system than that of today, when teacher/pupil ratios were extremely high, premises poor, equipment little more than a blackboard and conformity was the order of the day.  What made the Irish education system so good was the quality of those teachers who, even within such a system, were still able to generate a fascination for learning, for literature, for mathematics, for history, you name it, and indeed for religious education too.
Mistakes were made, but despite the heavy emphasis on memory and rote learning, creativity and inventiveness were still on the order of the day.  Creativity and capacity for innovation are the fundamental requirements to enter profitably into a knowledge-based economy and society.  This is why so many Irish women and men, and therefore our economy, have done so well in a modern economic climate.  The ability to foster creativity and innovation should be a signpost to guide and evaluate the future of the Irish educational system.
Another factor which contributed to the success of the Irish educational system is one that is perhaps often overlooked.  One of the strong characteristics of the Irish educational model, especially in primary schools, is that it is community-rooted.  The school belongs within a community and is managed from within the community. Boards of Management not only carry out the difficult task of ensuring the day to day management of the school but they also represent a strong bond with the local community which looks on the school as a genuine “social good”. 
A sense of “community ownership” brings a new dimension to the quality of the work of a school.  There is evidence from around the world that the closer education is to the local community the more effective it can be.  The school is not just a mechanism for transmitting information, but for awakening a passion for learning, a healthy curiosity, a respect for difference and diversity and a commitment to good citizenship.  This can only happen when the school is linked to the realities of the broader context of a community.
I do not underestimate the difficulties of such local management.  Parents are often interested in their child at school and less interested in the school when the child leaves. It is not easy to get people with the required skills to sit on Boards of Management.  People are off-put by the complexity of issues that they have to face.  I believe that these difficulties could be overcome by greater investment in training Boards of Management and perhaps in providing more effective support systems in certain legal and technical areas.  I would hope that the theme of support for Boards of Management would appear higher-up on the list of priorities of our educational policy in the months and years to come.
The question arises now as to what the Irish educational system will look like in five or ten years time.  The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in these days addressed the question of the demographic change in Ireland where many immigrants are not Catholics while the ethos of most schools is Catholic.  We have Catholic schools in Dublin where over 50% are international children – in one school the new entries are 80% this year. Many of these will not be Catholics.
I have on more than one occasion expressed my opinion that the fostering of plurality of educational patronage is something desirable and welcome in Ireland today and could bring benefit to all, and indeed also in allowing the specifically Catholic school to be more distinctively Catholic.    
Allow me to make some comments on what such a plurality might look like and where the Catholic school might find its place Plurality of systems does not in any way mean that the Catholic school is going off the agenda.  It has its place and will maintain it in the future as long as Catholic families want it.
The first thing that I would hope for is that that this plurality of patronage should not be at the expense of the community ownership of schools which has worked so well.  This could happen through education being looked at as a service run just like any business.  It could happen through the reinforcement of a “new elitism”, where “academic success” dominates, leaving the “school of the community” as a carry-all for the less able or less fortunate, or even worse through the creation by stealth of ghetto schools where problems concentrate.
True community ownership would also be weakened through an over-centralized bureaucracy or through a system where school management would be carved up for narrow political interests.
What is the future of the Catholic school in the new context?  There is a viewpoint which tends to look at religious education as something ideological, divisive and doctrinaire and perhaps not really a good thing for young people and certainly alien to what should belong to a school curriculum in a modern pluralist democracy.   Catholic ethos is often regrettably portrayed as a kind of ideology, set within an ideological battle. 
The primary witness of the Catholic school – shared with Schools of other Christian denominations – is that of witnessing to the extraordinary vision of life that faith in Jesus Christ offers to young people.   The message of a God who loves – who reveals himself in Jesus Christ as one who gives himself totally out of love – is the transforming message that the Catholic school brings to the child and to society.
Religious education is not a marginal extra in the Catholic school.  Religious education, however, must always be marked by its quality. True religious education leads to an opening of children’s minds and helps them along the first steps of reflection on the meaning of their own lives and values. It stimulates creativity and innovation and that openness to the transcendent which encourages the young person to go beyond him or herself. It invites young people to experience the love of God which insists on love of one’s neighbour.
Religious education is best understood as an exciting project which is truly in harmony with a modern pluralist society and can indeed be the best antidote to a culture of consumerism and superficiality, such as can emerge in a market-dominated culture in which everything has its price and you get just what you pay for.
Quality religious instruction in a culture in which so many of us are more and more reduced to the role of passive spectator, involves fostering imagination and creativity within religious education as a necessary prelude to being able to teach people about the specific content of religious truth.   Young people will only come to appreciate the concept of a gratuitously loving God, when they are lifted out of the closed, measurable world into the world of mystery in the best sense of that word.
Many of my generation, despite still being able quote the Catechism, have drifted far from belief.   This is often due to the fact that they never had that real sense of an experience of who Jesus is and what an encounter with him in might mean. There are others who can regurgitate the formulations of the Church’s moral teaching but who have rejected that teaching because it was presented as superficial moralism rather than as an experience of what a truly loving and responsible relationship in life might mean.
Pluralism in religious belief has now entered into a new chapter in its history in Ireland.  In this new reality the school must become a primary focus for fostering a climate of knowledge about various religions and about dialogue and mutual respect among different religious traditions.
In this State all religious confessions have the right to expect the respect and the support of the State in education within one’s own denomination and tradition. Is this something which divides the community?   I do not believe so.  Dialogue does not mean abandoning identity. Identity within a specific religious tradition can also be one open to and respectful of other religious traditions and of those who do not hold any religious faith.  The Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin have been extraordinarily sensitive to the fact of difference of ethnic, national and religious background in the school community and they deserve credit for what they have achieved.  Many Catholic schools, especially in the greater Dublin area, are multi-ethnic. Parents who have come recently to our shores – no matter of what religion or faith – place their confidence in our Catholic schools knowing that their children will be welcomed and will grow happily in their new environment. 
There are some who would perhaps hope that in time both Catholic schools and religious education in schools would have well neigh vanished.   Religion for some should be reduced to the private sphere. Some would tend to exclude religion from the everyday life of society and reduce it to a totally private sphere, almost to stress that somehow faith is not “real” in the same sense as the natural sciences are.   
The State should be neutral in addressing religious diversity in the sense that it does not favour any individual religious community, except where such a community may suffer disproportionate disadvantage because of size or other reason.  But there is no evidence that a totally “religiously neutral secularist society” is the best space in which to foster dialogue between religions.  There are forms of secular society in which hostility to religious values can indeed force religious groups into a dangerously narrow perception of their culture and thus sharpen religious differences.
There are effectively very few directly State managed primary schools in Ireland and these are mainly in the area of special education.   We are moving towards developing a plurality of models of patronage for primary education in a culturally pluralist society.   Any new system should be strongly rooted in the community.  Any system of direct State patronage should, as I have said, foster rather than weaken strong community ownership and that sense of welcome to the entire community that Catholic schools have in fact been offering.
I would argue that in a climate of emerging religious diversity, such State managed schools should not be a-religious or God-less, but that religious education should be an integral part of the curriculum. We do not live in a God-less society.  A programme of religious instruction could have an element of instruction on the variety of religious tradition present in the community but should also permit those parents who wish it, to have their children educated in the faith or the particular confession to which they belong.   This is the model that is present in numerous countries in continental Europe and has shown its worth.   It is the model in existing Community Schools at secondary level in Ireland.
Some may raise the difficulty that the simultaneous provision of religious instruction in primary schools according to different confessions or faiths may result in a fragmentation of class unity, in a system where there are “class teachers” rather than “subject teachers”. The changed reality of religious diversity in Irish society and in the individual classroom is inevitably pushing in that direction any way whether we like it or not.   It is a challenge we must confront and I believe can manage.
Guaranteeing denominational religious instruction in a new form of State sponsored primary school, not directly under religious patronage, would also allow the State to have an overseeing role in ensuring the quality of teaching of religion in order to ensure that abuses do not emerge or any form of fundamentalism in any religious tradition gain ground.
Change is needed and is coming in the Irish educational model.  But that change should take place in an appropriate environment.  Education cannot be judged exclusively in terms of quantifiable economic or technical outcomes.  A good educational system undoubtedly brings economic advantages to society but education should never be seen merely as a form of economic investment.
Educational policy should always have a special focus on those who are disadvantaged.  Why do people drop out of the schools system?  Why do disproportionate numbers drop out in certain areas and among certain social groups?  What are the special factors which might impede international children from fully benefiting from our educational system?   Is it just that those who come from backgrounds where they can pay for private education and grind schools effectively do better than others?
The challenges are many.  The temptation is to reply only in terms of what is most efficient economically.  This may not take into consideration the situation of disadvantage that certain communities suffer and which might well justify taking special measures to favour those areas, if even for a limited period of time.
My strong conviction is that a pluralist society can be best served by a plurality in schools, in which the variety of cultures and religious backgrounds are reflected, rather than through centralized uniformity.  I have attempted to show, for example, how a good Catholic school provides a special contribution to values within society.  Those who opt for such a system should not therefore be doubly burdened as in some countries through favouring in an exclusive way a State model.
It is a great time to be involved in education. There are many challengers and difficulties ahead.  We have, however, the opportunity to get it right in education at this moment.  But that opportunity may not repeat itself.  We have the financial possibilities to get it right.  We need to foster broad debate and avoid narrow ideologies.   We need both pragmatism and vision.  I hope that this new Graduate Diploma Course in Education will be a place where new thinking will emerge.