4/02/05 Address to Irish Primary School Principals Conference

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IPPN Conference 2005 – Inspiring Professionalism
Speaking notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
City West Hotel, Friday 4th February, 2005

Of all the areas with which I have to deal with as Archbishop of Dublin, the one about which I feel most inadequate is that of education and schools.   Unlike most priests of my generation, I have no experience of school management.  I worked in a Parish for only two years and for most of that time there was no primary school in the parish, something which the Parish Priest seemed to regard as a particular grace.  Living abroad for more than half of my life, I could talk to you about the problems and challenges my Italian friends had regarding their children in their scholastic system, but I know that I still have a long way to come up to scratch concerning the Irish one.


That is and should be a concern to me since I know that I am Patron of about  460 primary schools with the diocese of Dublin, which covers Country Dublin and large areas of Counties Kildare and Wicklow, one parish in County Wexford, a parish within two miles of Carlow town and another parish with a half-parish in County Laois.


The schools of which I am Patron are diverse in make up.  There are large urban schools, and even some two teacher schools.  There are schools with over twenty five nationalities present and schools which represent communities which have changed very little in the past years.  There is need to provide new schools in areas which are still in development and there are schools where numbers are going down towards the critical minimum needed to keep such a school in existence.


In Dublin I have no monopoly in the area of management.  There are Catholic schools and Church of Ireland Schools, and schools of various other religious denominations and non-denominational schools. There are “Educate Together” schools; there are various gaelscoileanna and there are private schools, some of religious inspiration.  Some parishes would contain schools with up to five different management models.


In addition, there is great ferment in the area of education and many of the “givens” and the “accepteds” of the past are being questioned on all sides.  There are some in this debate who are extremely cautious, conservative and corporatist in their attitudes, a few even ideologised.   These are to be found in almost all groups of stakeholders and not just in one particular group.  Others want change, with an equally varied spectrum of outcomes being proposed.


The first thing I would say, however, is that most of the schools of which I am patron are great schools, with great teachers.  You can feel it when you walk in the door.  I am particularly struck by the fact that many young teachers just out of the Colleges of Education opt to work in the most deprived areas of the diocese and they do so with a true sense of mission and service. 


I struck above all by the human qualities of teachers. After confirmations I have seen the sheer joy of teachers or indeed of an entire staffroom when things had worked out well for a child with a particular difficulty or family situation.  Teaching is simply in some people’s genes and they use that genetic make up with extraordinary generosity and passion.


Generosity however can be exploited and indeed frustrated.  Teachers have made an immense contribution to the recent extraordinary economic growth in Ireland.  They have the right now to see that an adequate proportion of the wealth generated by that economic growth be pumped back into schools and that they as individuals and as a profession  receive appropriate remuneration and status in society.  From my own experience in development policy in other counties, I know that the question of the social status of teaching as a profession is one of the most determinant factors in the effective delivery of quality education.  Any undermining of that status – which is linked also with remuneration –has seriously negative effects on the effectiveness of any education system.


In many ways it would be great if one could begin again from the drawing board and restructure the entire education system from scratch allowing the contemporary challenge and the priorities of the day to take change of the future.


 That is not going to be the case and for various reasons.  There are indeed many things that work and work well within our system and it is important that they should be allowed to flourish.   Some of these qualitative advantages of the Irish educational system might even be undermined if restructuring were planned within the framework of today’s economically dominated climate.
Ireland has had an educational system which has permitted an outstanding link between school and community.  The management system helped avoid a great administrative centralisation, placing control in the hands of a powerful educational bureaucracy.  An over emphasis on central bureaucracy has shown itself in other countries to be deleterious and open to political manipulation.   A healthy pluralism in the delivery of educational services can be beneficial to all.


Certainly there is need for common programmes, common curricula and common timetable.  But this can be achieved without breaking the fundamental link with the local community.   Where the bond between school and community is strong the school will be better.   Where there is tension between school and community all are losers.


There are many stakeholders within any school community: children, parents, local community, government, teachers, management structures, the patron and the ethos represented, as well as teachers’ organizations and school principals.             
I had originally written that list in a different order – in a form of thinking out loud – and then I realised that it is particularly important to place children in the first place.  Education is about children and the potential of children. Children are not the objects of teaching, but should be looked at as individuals, subjects, protagonists of their own future, as well as participants in the formation of community.   In my time at school there was a remarkable emphasis on conformity and for many the only way in which one could express individuality was often through rebellion.


It is reflection on the child which brings together the three elements that have been indicated as subject of my reflection: ethos, management and governance.  All three must be focused on the good of the child. Our children deserve the best.  The more our children are disadvantaged the more the need the best.


Education is about the development of the potential of the child, not just about imparting knowledge  Education is not about creating dependence but about creating a spirit of creativity and subjectivity which aims at enabling the child to become a true protagonist of the society within which he or she will have to live.   Education is about identifying and releasing the different innate talents that are in every child.   And no one knows better than teachers the satisfaction that comes with seeing a young persons’ talents blossom and be recognised.


Education is not preparing people for a job, although education will have failed if at the end of the process the person is unable to attain gainful and decent work.   But times have changed.   A knowledge based economy will require people with adaptability, creativity and the ability to manage knowledge, as well as information and formation.


Schools will have to evolve innovative management systems adapted to the particular cultural situations within which they work. I am speaking here about management with a small “m”, rather than the specific responsibilities of Boards of Management.   All levels of management will have to become multidimensional in their structure, where each of the stakeholders will work in collaboration for the good of the child. If anything, school management structures will have to become even more multidimensional in the future, adapting each school to the needs of the community at a particular moment.


Take the challenge, for example, of ensuing that children stay in school and that as many children as possible are able to climb the educational ladder to the highest degree possible.  I was surprised when I was appointed Archbishop of Dublin to read an article which claimed that my brother and I were the only children on my street to complete second level education.  I know that my friends were just as intelligent as my brother and I and had every right and ability to access to a higher level of education, and have in fact done quite well in life.  But their particular challenges were not addressed and their success is due in many ways to factors outside the educational system.  They succeeded despite the educational system.


Education and opportunity cannot be determined just within the four walls of a classroom.  Special needs will have to be assessed.  The effectiveness of school psychological services needs to be evaluated.   The child’s educational environment is not just the school, but the community or lack of community, the ability of the family to cope with the educational challenges – and indeed t