Investment, divestment needed urgently to safeguard Catholic education – report

Investment, divestment needed urgently to safeguard Catholic education – report Students from Doon Convent NS who are to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation are pictured on retreat at Holycross Abbey
The Church must act now to or else ethos will become invisible, Ruadhán Jones hears

An in-depth survey of Catholic schools in Ireland has highlighted stark issues regarding the continuing provision of Catholic-ethos based education in Ireland, saying there is a small window to act to safeguard its future.

While acknowledging the excellence of Catholic schools as institutions for education, and also the hard work and goodwill of staff and management, the Grace reports released on Tuesday suggests “a different picture begins to emerge” when ethos and mission-focus are considered.

One of the reports’ co-authors, Prof. Eamonn Conway, said the surveys show a “pattern of neglect” for formation around ethos and religious education that needs to be remedied urgently.

The data suggests there is “considerable positivity and goodwill toward Catholic education” in Ireland among Boards of Management (BOM), principals, teachers and staff, Prof. Conway told The Irish Catholic.

But “the window is narrowing very significantly in which we can act” as Catholic schools face a potential succession crisis due to a “trajectory of decline in levels of commitment” to the Faith, he added.


“Teachers in the age category 18-29 are becoming more and more removed from the Catholic faith,” he said. “For example, three out of 10 under 29 teaching at second level make it very clear they don’t witness to or support the Catholic ethos.

For principals over 50, almost 90% say they are committed to the Faith, but it drops for under 50s to 56%, the Grace reports show.

Speaking in broad terms, the former head of theology at Mary Immaculate College said there’s a fifth of those working in schools who are “very much on board” with Catholic ethos and identity.

There’s a further fifth who “aren’t on board at all” and there’s three fifths who are “open to it, but really do need to be engaged with, to be supported, to be cared for”, Prof. Conway said.

“There’s a pattern of neglect we need to remedy in terms of personal formation and in terms of formation professionally for roles like BOM, principals, teachers and so on.”

A second consideration is divesting Catholic schools, which Prof. Conway says we need to do quickly, warning that “we can’t maintain the number of schools we have, we don’t have the personnel”.

MIC Prof. Eugene Duffy, one of the reports’ co-authors, also believes the Church needs to “seriously engage with the divestment issue”.

“The project’s lead investigator, said that while divestment is difficult, ‘it absolutely needs to happen now’”

“If we don’t act now, we’re going to be pushed by demographic change,” he told The Irish Catholic, citing the declining commitment to Catholicism across the age brackets.

But it needs to be done in a serious partnership between the bishops and the Department of Education, Prof. Duffy added, “not in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion”.

“We should be doing it as the Irish bishops’ conference or a Church to ensure there is a coherent plan to ensure if we do divest, we are getting good returns. For schools we retain, that means greater control over the curriculum and ethos and attention to RE.”

Dr Daniel O’Connell, the project’s lead investigator, said that while divestment is difficult, “it absolutely needs to happen now”.

“Dioceses don’t seem able to resource schools in their diocese or in any way help schools act out their Catholic ethos. Divestment needs to be really engaged with in serious way,” the lecturer in religious education at MIC told The Irish Catholic.

As it stands, resources are “too far stretched”, with patrons looking after hundreds of schools. “They can’t engage in any serious structural, systemic way” around the implementation of ethos, Dr O’Connell said.

Equally, while he was pleasantly surprised by the positivity and openness of school personnel to Catholic education, Dr O’Connell said the age structure “will militate against people having capacity to take up leadership roles who have an understanding of and commitment to ethos as practice and belief in God isn’t there. Capacity is shrinking.

“Look at younger generations – 77% of primary teachers respect ethos, but when you look at 18-29-year-olds, that drops to 55%,” he said.


If action isn’t taken now in terms of divestment and resourcing, Dr O’Connell worries that ethos will become “invisible”.

“Whatever it’s like now, whatever capacity for articulating and acting on Catholic ethos there is, that is going to diminish and shrink in leadership of schools. It’s going to need intervention from the trusts,” he added.

Seriously investigating the possibility of divestment is just one of a number of recommendations from the Grace project based on their research.

Other recommendations include calling for investment in “significant training” for BOMs; for ethos to be a priority item on the agenda of each BOM meeting; for principals to be required to have a qualification in faith-based school leadership; and for all new members of staff receive substantial orientation on the school’s ethos on commencement of employment in a school.

Finally, the reports recommend “effective systems be put in place to advocate for Catholic education with government, the public, parents, teachers’ unions, and the media”.

For Prof. Conway, Chair of Integral Human Development at Notre Dame Australia, the ultimate remedy is to take a whole curriculum and whole sector approach.

“The surveys show a ‘pattern of neglect’ for formation around ethos and religious education that needs to be remedied urgently”

“This is where we’re going to have to deal tough with the Government… we can’t have a curriculum that is effectively secularist running alongside Catholic RE and relationships and sexual education (RSE),” he said.

“To communicate the Catholic education tradition, we need language and literature, we need history, we need science and religion and an understanding of science and faith that shows they are compatible.”

In terms of the education sector, Catholic education has to be integrated across primary, secondary and third level, to take into account the need for good Catholic teacher education, Prof. Conway added.

“The treasury of the Catholic intellectual tradition requires a whole school approach and a whole sector approach to properly function,” he said.

The Grace project, launched in All Hallows on April 23, is titled Identity and Ethos in Catholic Primary and Secondary Schools in Ireland, Exploring the Attitudes and Behaviours of Stakeholders, and comprises six reports covering principals, BOM, teachers, religious education and more.

The project aims to establish “a clear baseline and a set of signposts” for the advancement of Catholic education at primary and secondary levels in the Republic of Ireland.

“Other data raises questions about the beliefs and level of personal commitment to the Faith of self-identified Catholics”

Two online surveys were distributed to Boards of Management (BOM), principals, teachers and school personnel at both primary and secondary level, with a number of follow-up interviews conducted.

The surveys received almost 4,000 responses, the majority from primary level, and 52 follow-up interviews were conducted.

Overall, 94% of those surveyed identified themselves as Catholic. However, other data raises questions about the beliefs and level of personal commitment to the Faith of self-identified Catholics.

For instance, just 86% of respondents said they believe in God, while most self-declared Catholics do not attend Mass every week, though 60% do so at least twice a month.

Age plays a significant role in levels of religiosity, with the reports warning that the patterns emerging from this survey “indicate that the make-up of personnel in Catholic schools is becoming increasingly non-Catholic, and this trend is likely to continue over the coming years”.

It continues, saying: “Catholic schools are operating in an increasingly secular environment, and whatever demand there may be for Catholic education, there is a declining pool of personnel from which to recruit the people who can give effect to it”.

At BOM level, for instance, 95% of over 60s believe in God, but just 77% of under 40s express belief. The pattern is repeated across all school personnel, being most stark for teachers – 100% of teachers over 60 believe in God, but 35% of 18-29-year-olds do not.

For RE teachers, grading how important God is in their lives on a scale of 1-5, those aged 60+ give a score of 5 – but this drops to 3.5 for 18-29-year-olds, while only 48% of RE teachers attend Mass weekly. Less than 60% of RE teachers aged under 50 describe themselves as committed and practicing Catholics.

The report notes that teachers as a whole have “the lowest levels of religiosity” among those studied.


So while the reports found that Catholicism has a “strong presence” in Ireland’s Catholic schools, the data shows “several mismatches” between many Catholic values and the perceptions of God and personal religiosity of school personnel.

“Even if there is a sustained or possible increased demand for places in Catholic schools and/or an ongoing demand for Catholic education, schools are facing a declining and more diluted pool of Catholics from which to draw both voluntary and professional personnel,” the reports warn.

They add that “a considerable body of work” needs to be done in order to support and sustain current and future personnel and “to redress the mismatches between declarations and deeds”.

As it stands there is “scant training or formation” made available to school personnel to ensure they are well informed and “very little investment in this work”, the reports said.

The net effect of this is that while Catholic schools are “very comfortable” with certain elements of the Christian tradition, such as care for the poor and the environment, they are “less confident and less engaged in the explicitly religious dimensions of the Catholic tradition”, according to Dr O’Connell.

“Many primary school teachers are failing those who they were hired to serve: the children”

A third of primary principals and 50% of teachers disagreed with the statement that faith development opportunities are offered to them, with 29% of second level staff making the same claim.

The director of catechetics for the Irish bishops’ conference, Dr Alexander O’Hara has said meetings with key stakeholders in Catholic primary education “have recently been held to begin to address the need for continuing professional development provision (CPD) for teachers”.

“Whether teachers themselves believe in God or not or are Catholic or not they are first and foremost called to be teaching professionals. And professionals are hired to teach the curriculum and serve their pupils. That should be their first priority.”

Dr O’Hara also noted that the “religious education curriculum is in many instances not being taught in a comprehensive and professional manner. In short, many primary school teachers are failing those who they were hired to serve: the children”.

His view is borne out by the data gathered by the Grace project. While principals are often confident about the level of attention their school gives to ethos and RE, teachers offer a different perspective.

At primary level, 72% of principals report providing the opportunity to develop a personal faith in Christ as a central educational aim in their schools.

But just 51% of teachers agree, while a fifth of teachers and other personnel (21%) actively disagree that this is a central educational aim. At second level, this rises to 45% of school personnel who don’t consider it to be a central educational aim.

When it comes to teaching RE, only 17% of teachers report that they provide it daily, with 40% giving it just two days a week. A third of teachers say they don’t or rarely use curriculum and textbooks approved by the bishops.

“The attention given to patrons’ programmes at primary level and RE at second level – particularly the second level senior cycle – is really suffering from neglect over a number of years, it’s been directionless, it’s been neglected for a long time,” said Dr O’Connell.

He asked what is it that schools want Catholic students to know by the time they leave their school, saying at the moment it’s very piecemeal.


At primary level, religious education is meant to be taught half an hour every day, and while the MIC professor doesn’t think its realistic to teach five days a week, he said that “the patron needs to take responsibility for resourcing their programme and currently they don’t”.

Teachers get some training through their college education, “but there they are learning to teach 12 subjects, one of which is religious education – they need sustained help when they get into the classroom… they need continuing professional development at second and primary level”.

Again, age proves a key determinant when it comes to commitment to witnessing and respecting the school’s Catholic ethos.

“Commitment to Catholic ethos among teachers is on a trajectory of decline, dropping steadily at primary level and more dramatically at secondary level across the age cohorts,” the reports warn.

For Prof. Eugene Duffy, there is a serious issue with the lack of accountability for schools over ethos and RE at all levels.

“There’s very little accountability in the system,” Prof. Duffy told The Irish Catholic, adding that what little that is there is poor.

“We can see it in that BOM aren’t very diligent in addressing issues of ethos at their meetings – people aren’t held accountable,” he said.

The issue of ethos is neglected at BOM meetings as agendas are “crowded” with other important issues.

The reports also raised concerns about the level of oversight exercised by BOM, who leaned heavily on reports from principals to assess how well ethos was being implemented.

“Catholic schools are operating in an increasingly secular environment, and whatever demand there may be for Catholic education, there is a declining pool of personnel from which to recruit the people who can give effect to it”

However, there was a “gap of assessment” between the principals’ assessments and those of teachers and staff, Prof. Conway said.

“ ‘The numbers reporting little or no training in the areas of ethos are astonishing,’ Prof. Conway remarked”

“The principals are very positive generally about how good their schools are in terms of ethos, but the teachers are telling a different story. Yet it’s the principals who are informing the BOM,” he continued.

“The BOM is meant to hold the principal accountable, but who holds the BOM accountable?”

Ultimately, the buck stops with the bishops, who are responsible for oversight of Catholic education in their dioceses.

However, Prof. Duffy raised concerns about the role of the diocesan advisor (DA), who on paper has the role of evaluating the quality of RE provided in schools.

“Just 54% of DA’s visited primary schools pre-Covid and 50% visited secondary schools. The kind of assessment on part of the bishops and trusts is very poor,” Prof. Duffy said.

In addition, the DA’s have “very little teeth to do much”.

“In the old days, it was a diocesan examiner, who would examine RE in the same way as any other subject. It’s neither now, neither exam nor accountability – the systems of accountability are poor,” he reflected.

The reports note that patrons and trusts appear not to be “proactive in communicating the primary importance of their ethos to the school communities; nor do they appear to demand accountability from them regarding the implementation of ethos-related issues, as the data from the survey indicate”.

But for both Prof. Duffy and Prof. Conway, it would be unfair to implement accountability if there isn’t formation on offer of sufficient quality.

“Before you hold them to account, you have to offer them training. The numbers reporting little or no training in the areas of ethos are astonishing,” Prof. Conway remarked.


In terms of official Church teaching, the Irish bishops’ conferences have released four, comprehensive documents on Catholic education, which provide a guide for assessing the effectiveness of Catholic schools in providing a faith-based education.

But there is a failure to communicate these documents and their contents, as well as more broadly to communicate the strength and distinctiveness of Catholic education.

For example, almost 90% of teachers at primary level are unsure or say they have not heard of the key document Vision 8 – the bishops’ 2008 pastoral letter for Catholic schools – while 59% of RE teachers at second level haven’t heard of it.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with the bishops, who are responsible for oversight of Catholic education in their dioceses”

“There’s nothing wrong with the documents themselves,” said Prof. Duffy. “They are there as a benchmark for performance, but that doesn’t happen, because there’s poor accountability. The bishops are not following up with BOM on implementation methods and teaching of RE.”

“Overall, the Church is ‘poor at promoting what we have’ in terms of Catholic education”

To encourage more buy-in from schools and stakeholders, Prof. Duffy believes the bishops need to circulate drafts of the document and generally consult more widely with stakeholders.

Overall, the Church is “poor at promoting what we have” in terms of Catholic education.

“They could do better job in presenting what they do. Educate Together are good at talking about being inclusive and welcoming, but Catholic schools are far more inclusive, if you looked around the country, you would find more ethnic diversity in Catholic schools,” said Prof. Duffy.

From the perspective of education, the schools are “top the class” too, as recent reports show. But this must be matched by delivering a truly Catholic ethos, which is often “poorly articulated”, he added.

The Global Researchers Advancing Catholic Education (GRACE) project is an international research-based partnership between academics in universities and Catholic education bodies across three different continents. The universities are: Mary Immaculate College, Limerick; Notre Dame University, Fremantle, Australia; RocheCenter for Catholic Education, Boston College; St Mary’s University, London; University of Glasgow; and the International Office for Catholic Education. The Grace reports were co-funded by the All Hallows Trust, the Presentation Sisters SE and NW, and the Irish Jesuits.

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