While public appetite for dismantling parental choice in education is low, those who value faith schools must prepare, writes Michael Kelly
At the national education conference hosted by The Irish Catholic last October Bishop Tom Deenihan effectively warned that if the Church could not move more quickly on the issue of divesting some more schools to a non-Catholic patronage, the decision well might be made for us.
The Programme for Government announced this week after talks between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party may well prove his point. The document insists that the new administration will establish a citizens’ assembly “on the future of education ensuring that the voices of young people and those being educated are central”.
What can be the harm in that, I hear you ask? Well, the reality is that previous incarnations of the citizens’ assembly have really been used as fora to soften up public opinion for something that is contentious. Take, for example, the gatherings on same-sex marriage and abortion. I think that few truly neutral observers would accept that these events – despite eminent chairs – heard equally from all sides.
Such an assembly is likely to look at Bunreacht na hÉireann and what the Constitution currently says about education. For those who are bit rusty on the issue, it says, amongst other things that “the State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children”.
It adds that “the State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State”.
Crucially, the document says that the State shall provide “for” education, rather than providing education per se. This relatively ‘hands off’ approach has allowed voluntary schools that cater to the needs of parents to flourish. Traditionally, faith schools have dominated the sector, but increasingly Educate Together – another voluntary partner – have built a network of non-denominational schools to cater for parents who don’t want their child educated in a faith-based environment.
Are there enough non-religious schools? The answer is undoubtedly, no. But the Church has been working to divest schools with varying levels of interest from the Department of Education.
A citizens’ assembly on education is likely to cast a critical eye on the current landscape and push for greater State control of education. Already, Catholic schools are greatly curtailed in what they can do – State control would be the death knell for this.
One doesn’t have to be a prophet to see a referendum on so-called ‘school equality’ on the cards in the not too distant future.
The purpose of the referendum, of course, would be to end Church patronage of schools, and along with it all forms of school patronage, and to replace the current system with State control of all State-funded schools.
Of course, there’s no public demand for such a referendum, but put a few ‘on message’ experts all over the airwaves, a smattering of hard cases where children have been denied a place in an over-subscribed school (for the record a shift in patronage will not tackle the real issue that we need more school places), and a well-times report highlighting Church failings on the issue of abuse and the stage is set.
Things can change very quickly in politics and a hostile Minister for Education could well steer a referendum to abolish school patronage across the line.
The issue of patronage is not the only thing that is of concern in the Programme for Government which will now be sent to the party faithful for review.
Another part of the document pledges to “develop inclusive and age appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula across primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes if necessary”. What effect, for example, will such a programme have on the ability of a Catholic school to teach about human sexuality in a way that is authentically Catholic? Will the school be able to emphasise the unique nature of the family based on marriage between one man and one woman?
There are also plans to introduce hate crime legislation may seem harmless, but such laws have often been used in other jurisdictions to silence people critical of themes like gender ideology.
The Programme for Government also promises to provide free contraception over a phased period, starting with women aged 17-25 as well as introducing legislation around assisted human reproduction.
Buried in the detail is also a proposal to introduce so-called ‘exclusion zones’ around hospitals and medical facilities to prevent pro-life activists from quietly against abortion at such centres.
The agreement between the three parties also promises to “note” the review to the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Act (2018) which will take place in 2021. Such a review will likely hear calls for further liberalisation of laws around abortion such as an abolition of the three-day cooling off period and an extension of the age of the child that can be aborted for any reason from 12 weeks to, for example, 14 weeks.
While critics have dismissed the Programme for Government as an uncosted wish list, there is much to concern people of faith.