‘Catholic education is something to be proud of’

Cathal Barry speaks to JMB General Secretary John Curtis about the challenges facing Catholic schools

The JMBAMCSS is quite the mouthful. Better known as the JMB, the Joint Managerial Body Secretariat of Secondary Schools represents the interests of all voluntary secondary schools in the country.

“The JMB provides services and advice to schools on a wide range of issues, we engage with the Department of Education and Skills on a number of matters on behalf of our members, and of course, we look after the faith aspect of education in our schools,” the organisation’s head, John Curtis, says. 

Mr Curtis took up the role of General Secretary in January and is overseeing his first annual conference at the helm this week.

Prior to his new position, the “bulk” of the Wexford native’s experience had been in principalship.

Having spent more than 20 years combined guiding the country’s two oldest Catholic schools in existence (St Kieran’s College in Kilkenny and St Mary’s Knockbeg College in Carlow), Mr Curtis was well placed to take on the many challenges facing him in his new role.

Knowledge

Education had always been the calling for this once History and English teacher. 

“I love teaching. I think it’s that transmission of knowledge and something of your own personal sense of vocation and mission as well. 

“History and English are two great teaching subjects and I really enjoyed teaching them,” he says, acknowledging that his teaching career was cut short after he took the step into principalship at a “relatively young” age. 

“I think it is true to say for a lot of Irish teachers there is that sense of service and vocation which I think is very strong still among the teaching cohort that we have. 

“I think it’s very important to recognise that and we truly treasure it because so much work goes on in our schools in a voluntary capacity. I never fail to be amazed by the amount of work that is done by teaching staff in a voluntary capacity,” he says, adding that the JMB also boasts some 3,000 volunteers working on boards of management “giving of their time”.

It was through his role as principal that Mr Curtis came into contact with the work of the JMB. Praising predecessors such as Bro. Declan Duffy, George O’Callaghan and Ferdia Kelly for their “strong sense of service and commitment” to the membership of the JMB, Mr Curtis says the organisation has been “absolutely blessed in the context of the people they have had” in the position of General Secretary.

He now spends a lot of time with the “day to day activities of schools and what the schools are engaging with”, noting the importance of having a “strategic sense of where we are going and how we are positioning ourselves as Catholic schools in the future, so that we remain strong and committed to the founding missions of our schools”.

“There is a lot of work going on at present in that regard,” Mr Curtis says.

The JMB’s annual conference, which is taking place this week in the luxurious Europe Hotel in Co. Kerry, is on the theme of ‘From Ambiguity to Clarity – the Future of the Catholic School’.

Mr Curtis says he hopes it will address issues such as the role of Catholic schools, their founding intentions and the “sense of mission” as Church in schools. 

Aside from various key note addresses and practical workshops, Mass will be celebrated by papal nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown. 

The three-day conference which began on Wednesday, April 27, will conclude on Friday, April 29, with a forum and panel discussion on the current challenges facing Catholic schools.

Addressing some of the challenges, Mr Curtis says there is a “need to ensure in areas of leadership that we are leading in a way that is appropriate for the modern age”. 

“A lot of what is going on in Catholic education today is about this dialogue between faith and culture. We have to engage with young people,” he says.

Mr Curtis is adamant that “religious education is kept in schools”. 

“The Catholic education we can give kids is very valuable and it’s very important that we continue to provide it. It certainly gives children a moral frame,” he says, noting the need to clarify and reflect on what that mission of Catholic education now is. 

“We live in a pluralist society. We have to make sure that we are strong, we have to make sure that we are vibrant, we have to make sure that we are excellent and that involves a lot of work.

Dialogue

“We absolutely have something distinctive to offer. We have a dialogue in society now between faith and culture, we have diversity of provision in schools, so it is very important that we look at our founding intention and look at why we were founded in the first place because there is a richness to that sense of mission,” he says.

Catholic education, according to Mr Curtis is “hugely important for society and has been hugely enriching of Irish society through the generations”. 

He cites the “huge success” of efforts such as Catholic Schools Week, which celebrates Catholic education. 

“The way in which schools have engaged with that has been very encouraging. It’s the type of thing that we need to be doing more because we do need to reflect on who we are, where have we come from and where are we going.

“In an increasingly pluralist society we need that sense of identity and purpose. I think now more than ever there is a great need for us to engage with children in that way,” he says.

On the much aired subject of inclusivity, the JMB’s General Secretary states plainly that Catholic secondary schools are “very inclusive”. 

“We have always been hugely inclusive of people of all faiths and none. That has been very enriching for our schools as well as being beneficial to society. 

“That inclusivity is key and that what we want to engage with. We want to be inclusive, we want to reach out. The message of Pope Francis is all about inclusivity and engaging with culture and I see that as being a very strong proponent of what we are about in Catholic schools,” he says.

While dealings with the Department of Education and Skills have been “absolutely great”, Mr Curtis does hold back about “issues” of concern.

“Certainly we would have issues and a lot of that would tend to be around the area of resourcing.

“Teachers over the years have given so much of themselves in a voluntary capacity and because so many religious people have given so much to education, the State has gotten away with things a little on the cheap. 

“It is a bit of a concern that the amount of money as a society we spend on education would be less that in most developed countries and that the percentage of money that we have been spending on education in the last number of years with the economic cutbacks has been decreasing. We think we have an excellent product. You can’t deliver on the cheap,” he says.

The JMB certainly isn’t in maintenance mode either and its General Secretary says the organisation “very much wants to be in the frame for any new schools that are being opened”.

“We think it is very important for society that our sector continues to remain strong,” he says.

Returning to the contentious issue of resourcing, Mr Curtis says it is also a “concern” for the JMB’s schools “that so much of our funding tends to come from the voluntary contribution of parents”. 

“That is an ongoing issue that has to be addressed. We understand that as voluntary schools we have to contribute to the schools in some shape or form but there are glaring inequities,” he says.

Acknowledging that the recession “has been tough on” schools, Mr Curtis said he was particularly mindful of the 15% reduction in financial support in the area of special needs that “has to be addressed”. 

Concern

Turning his attention to the fee-charging school sector, the JMB’s General Secretary says that one of the major things that concerns him is the “very high” pupil-teacher ratio.  

“The great richness in the Irish system is that there is that diversity of provision. One thing we are concerned about is that the pupil-teacher ratio in the fee-paying schools is up to 23-1 which is very high and even though we have had a small reduction in budget 2016 in other schools there wasn’t a reduction in the fee-charging sector. We are very concerned about that and very hopeful that at this stage there will be a realisation that the fee-paying schools have absorbed as much as they can,” he says.

While the vexed issue of school patronage in the primary sector, which has dominated so much media coverage of late, does not come under his remit, Mr Curtis acknowledges that it is a “difficult” subject to address.

“We are very supportive of diversity of provision and that is something that will continue. I can understand the difficulties around it,” he says.

Acknowledging that there is only very limited demand for great diversity of patronage, Mr Curtis says “we still have to provide” for that demand. 

“We are very lucky at second level that there is that diversity and it is a system that broadly works,” he says.

“The element of competition is great, it’s very healthy, because when you have different types of schools, everybody has to be attendant to the fact that they want to be at their best and the want to be exemplars of excellence in so many different ways. 

“I think that is where the Catholic model of education is so important and I believe is even more important for the Ireland to come than it may have been for the Ireland of the past,” he says.

Another issue that seems to dominate media coverage is oversubscription, which affects both primary and secondary schools.

“For the vast majority of schools it is not an issue at all. By and large, Irish schools are hugely generous, open and inclusive and the only reason anyone is turned away is because the school is oversubscribed. 

“We would certainly hope that the situation wouldn’t arise, that there would be enough provision of school places in localities that it would not be an issue. The last thing any of our schools want to do is turn somebody away, but because of difficulties around numbers it does happen on occasion,” he says.

Confident

Returning to education in general, Mr Curtis is convinced that Catholic schools have “served this country very well”. 

“I am absolutely confident that they will continue to do so because if you see the vibrancy of the teachers, leaders and people on boards of managements in our schools you would have no doubt that the pursuit of excellence that’s there.

“That sense of faith, that desire to do the best for children, is absolutely apparent at all levels and I would see that in schools throughout the organisation,” he says.

The JMB’s General Secretary admits he “cannot speak highly enough about the level of engagement” of teachers. 

“Not only in the classroom but we seem to have this capacity to give that little bit more, whether that be the kind word in the corridor, staying behind after school to help with football, just that sense of service and generosity of spirit that I think typifies so much of what Irish people are about,” he says.

In terms of his own goals in what he hopes to achieve during his tenure, Mr Curtis doesn’t hold back.

He wants to “ensure that the Catholic voluntary school sector remains strong, vibrant and energetic, and expands if necessary to meet the needs of society”. 

“I think we have something to be very proud of and I think it is something that Ireland as a whole can be very proud of,” he says. 

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