31/3/2011 ACCS Conference Meidating School Ethos

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Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools Convention 2011


Lecture Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

6pm White’s Hotel, Wexford, 31st March 2011

We are experiencing a challenging time regarding education in Ireland.  There is great cultural ferment and a spirit of innovation in our schools and educational establishments.  Education in Ireland has great potential for change and development and to be world class.   At the same time there are serious economic question-marks hanging over our educational system, alongside economic restraints affecting the entire public service.  Education in Ireland has the potential for change but less hope of investment for change. Investment for change is long term by nature.  Budget cuts unfortunately have to address urgent questions in the shortest time possible.   Even in difficult times, however, educational policy should never loose sight of its long-term vision.

Any examination of Ireland’s successes over the generations inevitably has to assign great credit to the irreplaceable contribution that our educational system has brought to the social, economic, political, religious and cultural fabric of society.   Our educational system has often worked educational miracles within tight economic budgets.  Our education system has shown flexibility and adaptability as times have changed.  The contribution of our schools has been vital in responding to the recent vast change in the demographic and cultural make up of today’s Irish society.

Our educational system is not however an anonymous and amorphous structure.  At its heart are teachers.  Ireland has been blessed with generations of great teachers, men and women with a passion for their profession who have given of themselves way beyond the call of duty.  Indeed teachers have always been generous in the extreme when it came to defining “the call of duty”.  When it comes to teachers, the good of the children is never put into second place.

Two evenings ago I hosted an evening with 48 primary school principals recently appointed to Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin.  It was gathering marked by an enthusiasm that is all too rare in today’s difficult economic climate.  It was a truly forward-looking gathering, filled with a spirit of wanting to work together in a common project for our future generations.

Education policy must always be forward-looking.  At this period of the year, I am on the road almost daily for the administration of Confirmation.   I get a fascinating glimpse of young boys and girls, in both urban and rural communities, in their final year at primary school.  Many will be your students this autumn.  There is amazing talent and creativity in these boys and girls.  They have a much deeper sense of their own talents and confidence in their abilities than I had in my time, when conformism was too often a dominant feature of Irish education.

I can promise you – from what I am seeing – that your next generation of pupils will be a generation of curious, inquisitive, and innovative young boys and girls who are not shy about saying what they think or unashamedly asking the questions that are on their minds; and I hope that hearing this is something that will cheer you up.  That is what education is about.  Beyond all the concerns about curricula and about buildings, about patronage or about numbers, the real interest of teachers is in transmitting a passion for learning to a new generation.  It is about enabling boys and girls to realise their God-given talents, in a spirit of respect and esteem for others.  It is about giving that special word of encouragement to those who are in any way disadvantaged so that this country can truly be seen as a nation which cherishes all her children.   That is the real interest of teachers.  Realising that task is what brings satisfaction to teachers as individuals and as communities of teachers who form a school.

Community and Comprehensive Schools have assumed a special role in Irish second-level education over the years.   They are modern schools with a broad curriculum and yet they are also schools which are aware of a tradition they inherited and of values and a founding intention which in some cases goes back even before the establishment of a particular school in its present form.

Your schools have a specific religious tradition.  Some were founded by Religious Congregations and had developed well-earned reputations and prestige through the work of the initial Christian educators.  Successful formulae have been elaborated in Deeds of Trust which ensure that this heritage and inherited ethos can be continued and consolidated in new ways and in new partnerships.

I have to say that I am not particularly enamoured with the word “ethos”.   It is too ethereal for me.   My spell-check tells me that ethereal means insubstantial or light.  Like Mission Statements – no matter how useful they are – ethos can easily remain just something vague that is nicely phrased and even more nicely framed at the entrance to a school.  If we are not careful, ethos can be “lite”, spelt with an “ite”.  We have to ask: what is it that transforms a vague ethos into something more concrete and touchable?  Is it possible to concretely grasp and possibly even measure ethos?   How do we mediate such an ethos, as the title you assigned to my talk this afternoon, alludes to.

The origins of many of your schools are linked to Religious Congregations.  These Congregations did not just enunciate an ethos. The members of these Congregations combined ethos with mission and witness.  The ethos was not a vague philosophy but something that was witnessed to in the daily life and commitment of the members of the Religious Congregation.   The more ethos, mission and witness were drawn together the more clearly the focus of the whole school and its educational vision was.  Where ethos was betrayed by the way those who proclaim it lived, the result was brazen hypocrisy.  On the other hand, an ethos without accompanying commitment is just empty ideology.   The challenge of the new educational trusts, which take over the traditions of Religious Congregations, will not just be that of keeping alive a charism or an ethos, but of ensuring witness to that charism.  The trusts have to be much more than just central offices.

Wherever that linkage between ethos and witness did not work, then the entire school suffered.  The same applies today.  A school can have an ethos just on paper or in a framed certificate.  Ethos will only become real when the entire educational community in a school takes ownership of that ethos and shares it and lives it.  In that sense ethos can become an integrating factor in giving the pupils an integrated vision of life and of their own dignity.  Education is not just about teaching children how to do things; it is about inspiring the way they wish to live.

Young people today, despite their highly developed technical abilities, need even more than in the past an integration within their studies which will help them find meaning and purpose for their lives.  I am amazed to listen at liturgies to the sentiments and sensitivity of young people when they formulate, for example, prayers of intercessions concerning their own needs and the needs of society. I am struck by the deep passion they have for a world which is more just and meaningful.  I am sure that you have shared this same experience in other contexts.  There is inevitably a danger when funds are limited that educational policy becomes more pragmatic and focuses narrowly on technical aspects and abilities.  That can however be short-sighted.     

Community and comprehensive schools are a unique model in Irish education.  They are public schools which also have religious patrons and where there is an agreed plan for religious instruction. Teachers have often commented to me on how the unique contribution that a good religious education teacher or a chaplain can make to the overall life of your schools, as well as to the integration of faith and life into the personal development of the student.  In today’s Ireland Community and Comprehensive schools are also models which foster the integration of young people of different confessions and faiths into a society which is truly pluralist. Your schools are pluralist, yet religion is not marginalised or privatised.   The values of a lived-out-faith are not imposed but the faith of each person is truly respected.

This sense of community and interaction of people of different faith backgrounds and those who profess no religion is a valuable contribution to our pluralist society.  The experience of your schools is that they have enabled many young men and women to develop a vigorous understanding of their own faith and how their faith can be alive and nourished and cultivated in a pluralist environment.  It surprises some people when I tell them that a very high percentage of the candidates for priesthood in the Archdiocese of Dublin attended Community or Comprehensive schools, rather than voluntary Catholic secondary schools.

The discussion on the nature of school patronage has taken a prominent place on the educational agenda in these days.  I welcome again the launch of the National Forum on Patronage in Primary Education established by the Minister of Education and Skills, Mr Ruairi Quinn.  I agree with the Minister that the time has come to begin to move forward in this process.  It would be foolish however not to note that the process will encounter many forms of resistance.  These may range from resistance to the idea of fostering greater plurality in patronage models, to resistance from individual communities, to resistance simply to any change from the status quo.

At this moment the forum will look only at primary schools, but it is inevitable that its effect will extend further.   This is a sensitive area which involves not just patron bodies, but teachers, families and communities and of course children.  Schools have historical roots in communities which are deep-felt.  We must always remember what change in patronage is about.  It is about the type of society that we wish to build, one in which people of different religious and philosophical backgrounds can feel that are each fully a part of an educational system which welcomes their particular philosophy of life.

A first practical condition for this process of changing the balance of patronage to work is that both parents and teachers and communities to know more clearly which alternative models are in reality being proposed.  “Educate Together” is a model which is well established and has been successful in various parts of Ireland.  We have various forms of Gaelscoileanna.  Alongside Catholic schools, there are schools belonging to other Christian denominations as well as Islamic schools and a Jewish school.  Our experience with what are called the new VEC model is much more limited.  Here today one inevitably asks are there lessons to be learned from the experience of ACCS schools.   Could this model be extended also to primary schools?   It should also be noted that management costs and patronage expenses vary today considerably from one model to the other.

As a Catholic Archbishop, I obviously have a particular interest in the future of Catholic Schools.  I also feel it important, however, to repeat my view that there is a national interest in ensuring that the other religious denominations – which may be smaller in numbers and whose members may be geographically quite dispersed – should be helped to maintain their own schools.  These schools, with their particular ethos, have been a significant factor for diversity and tolerance in Ireland over many years and our system would be poorer without them.  

Over all, our educational system must be a reflection of a more participative understanding of society where government and citizens are not seen as separate and distant poles of activity and where intermediary bodies work with State and citizens to foster what Pope John Paul II had called a “subjective society”.  Social reform will not be attained by social engineering but by enabling greater participation of citizens and the voluntary sector in the planning and delivery of services.

Recent comments that I made about the centrality of the role of parents in educational policy were taken up by some observers as being polemical in intent. That was not my intention.  I quoted President Bill Clinton who said that: “It is not the State’s job to bring up children; it is the job of parents”.   Fergus Finlay replied by quoting Hillary Clinton who said that it is not parents alone who educate a child, “it takes a village”.  I take the point and I could not agree more.  What I was proposing when I used Pope John Paul’s concept of the “subjectivity of society” was precisely the idea that society – the village – has its own vitality which is not the exclusive property of anyone not even of the State.  The State has a vital role which no other body can usurp, but it is not the task of the State to stifle or substitute community activity. The family, on its part, has its unique role and its rights.  The family is one of the few collective subjects of rights to be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I refer back to that talk and the reactions to it because I believe that it is vital that the debate around change in the educational system should addresses attentively and also that it such take place in a correct climate.  The debate is not just about different models of patronage, or just on a technical level, or just about history.  It is about differing visions of life and society.  But this do not mean that we enter into a Kulturkampf or ideological war or that we throw around disparaging labels at each other because we espouse differing positions.

I have expressed for sometime now my conviction regarding the need to see a variety of patronage models in Irish education because I see involved here a right to ensure that every citizen can feel that our educational system welcomes them with their own vision of life, whether that be religious or not.

That said I feel that I must also note that stressing the need for a variety of patronage models is not a criticism of Catholic education.  I say that to some members of the Catholic community who feel that I am somehow downplaying Catholic schools or “giving away” schools.  I say it to others who would seem to consider Catholic education as somehow a divisive and negative factor in Irish education.  Catholic schools have been rooted in the local community and have been supported by the local community and have strengthened the local community.  They have been dedicated to education in a manner detached from narrow political interest.  They have fostered fruitful cooperation between community, teachers and families.  There are values not to be easily brushed aside.

The desire for specifically Catholic education may be less than it was in the past, but this does not mean that Catholic education itself is a thing of the past.    The criticism which some international Human Rights Treaty Bodies have made about the lack of a pluralist educational system in Ireland is a valid criticism, but it is not a criticism of Catholic education; it is a criticism of the inadequacy of government policy.  The National Forum is a welcome initiative by the government to address this question.

I believe that the experience of ACCS schools offers an interesting framework out of which lessons might be learned about the contribution that religious education brings within the broad agenda of a comprehensive pluralist school programme. I regret that I cannot be with you for your discussions in these days but I look forward to learning the conclusions of your convention. 

Pluralism in educational provision will not be an easy task to realise.  Saying this does not mean that I am reneging on my positions.  I have repeatedly affirmed that simply providing greater choice does not necessarily guarantee true pluralism.  People may use pluralism in school choice to choose to opt out of pluralism. The temptation will always exist for parents to choose a school precisely because it is not pluralist, because there are no disadvantaged or marginalised children.  Overall the record of Catholic primary schools in Ireland in addressing economic, social and ethic inclusion is a very good record.  I would hope that in a more pluralist system that Catholic schools would continue in that tradition and be schools of educational excellence where the disadvantaged are very much supported and nourished.  But it would be foolish not to recognise that plurality is schools can lead to forms of exclusivism and that the bond between school and integrated community be weakened.

Pluralism in educational patronage can only help the ability of Catholic schools to be truly Catholic.  The Catholic school is not just a school which is under the Patronage of the Catholic Church.  For a short time, due to particular circumstances and awaiting the outcome of negotiations, I accepted to be Patron of a non-Catholic school.  I never intended that school to be anything else and was happy to hand it over to the VEC as soon as that became possible.

The Catholic school is not just a school with a different Patron and a different mission statement framed at its front entrance.  The contribution of the Catholic school involves a formation in religious faith which fosters the integral development of its pupils and is also a contribution to the good and the moralisation of society.  The Christian message, when lived authentically brings a special contribution to the development of a healthy society.  The Catholic school must defend its ability to maintain and foster and indeed strengthen its Catholic identity in a pluralist context.  If the Catholic school waters down it Catholic identity then it is not going to bring its specific contribution to society.    The same applies to the place of religion in ACCS schools.  Diversity will not be achieved by uniformity.  Catholic children should be able to flourish in their Catholic identity alongside others who have the same rights to their religious beliefs and identity.    A pluralist society is not one where we all look alike, but one where we can be proud to live our different identity and respect the identity of others.   That is an important dimension of the ethos of ACCS schools.

I would wish that the Catholic schools which remain under my patronage would be truly Catholic schools.  It is not fair that teachers who have no commitment to the Catholic Church feel that they have teach religious education in order to get a teaching position.  This is why I believe that divesting Catholic patronage is not simply about swapping buildings.  I would hope that National Forum would also examine ways to facilitate – over time – a voluntary exchange of teachers who would prefer to teach in a school with a religious ethos or in one with a different ethos.

The National Forum on School Patronage will have to take into consideration the aspirations of all stakeholders.  Curiously the group which bears the fundamental constitutional responsibility for educational choice – parents – is the least organised and therefore the most difficult to consult on a national level.  But parents are the crucial factor on the level of local communities and they must be protagonists in the political choice of the future and should be encouraged to take an active part in the on-going debate about schools. The parents of today have also to take into account that the decisions they take today are only partially about their own children.  Their decisions will also affect the parents and the children of the next generation.

What is a religious ethos about?  It is not about indoctrination.  There is no way in which I can impose a religious belief on any person.  Faith is something which must be personally embraced, but it must also have an environment which allows that development to take place.  Someone recently quoted to me a newspaper comment where a person said “I regret that I was not born as Catholic.  Catholics do not have to think”.  That is a long way from the true position of Catholic teaching which encourages all of us to address the fundamental questions about life.  Faith and reason interact.   Faith is difficult in today’s world.  Pope Benedict in an interview some years spoke of the challenge of Christians today was ““to witness to God in a world that has problems finding God”   A Catholic ethos must attempt to make visible the love of God as a fundamental source without which our lives would otherwise become sterile and would loose their fundamental point of reference and orientation.

Writing in Dublin in the mid-nineteenth century as he reflected on his vision of a Catholic University, Blessed John Henry Newman considered the characteristics of a Catholic laity.  His description suggests well the aim of an educational institution which shares a Catholic ethos:   ‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it’ (The Present Position of Catholics in England, ix, 390).

Pope Benedict in his homily at the beatification of Cardinal Newman said that: “The service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’. His insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education ……………..continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world”.

A Catholic ethos should be far from any form of indoctrination.  It should rather be something which sharpens the intellectual vision of young people and enables them to develop a modern equivalent of the “prolific pen” about which the Pope spoke.  Today the modern equivalent of the “prolific pen” of the past which addressed the subjects of that day, is a creative and active presence in that vast network of communication and interaction of people and ideas which help shape the foundations of the our society in the future, a society with participation rather then apathy or indifference, where values and respect are fostered.

That is part of the challenge for ACCS schools.  I wish you every success in your challenging task as teachers and administrators, but above all as educators.   ENDS