The Problems of Patronage

Diversity of patronage could make for a more divided school system, Joanna Tuffy warns Greg Daly.

A seemingly endless parade of broadsheet articles in recent weeks have ensured that to many observers schools patronage must seem to be the most pressing issue in Irish education. 

Dublin Mid-West TD Joanna Tuffy, however, points out that “patronage is not necessarily the number one factor for the majority of people”, since “the big factor for parents is that they want to get a place in the local school – for most parents that trumps everything else”.

Ms Tuffy, who has been a TD since 2007, chairs the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection which in March 2014 published its report on the Draft General Scheme of an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013, observing that “multiple patronage and ethos as a basis for policy can lead to segregation and inequality in the education system”. 

“My own view,” Ms Tuffy says, stressing that hers was not the only view on the committee, “is that diversity of patronage isn't the best approach. It can divide up children and segregate them according to patron.” 

In its report the committee cited the Department of Education’s 2008 Audit of School Enrolment Policies which did not find evidence of “any system-wide enrolment practices that would give rise to concern”, and though the committee recognised that there is in principle a problem with oversubscribed schools rejecting students on the basis of religion, it cited no evidence that this is in practice a widespread problem. 

While there is a lack of serious data on the issue, prominently reported anecdotes have made clear that it does happen. “If a local Catholic school is oversubscribed, people who are not Catholics can lose out,” Ms Tuffy observes, adding they’re more likely to do so if they live just beyond a school’s catchment area. 

Citing an example from her own experience of a Muslim parent who lived just outside a catchment area who was told that her child would have very little chance of getting a place in an over-subscribed school, Ms Tuffy says problems can arise with oversubscribed schools with religious patrons, but nonetheless stresses “my experience of my own constituency is that Catholic schools are very, very inclusive”.

“In my own daughter’s school,” she continues, “there would be a very high percentage of Muslim girls. The school is very inclusive in terms of managing to have different religions in the school.” The school has a history of inclusivity, she says, adding, “when I went there, there were travellers in my class and Church of Ireland children”.

That a traditional Irish national school with a religious patron should prove so welcoming a home to Muslim children might surprise some, but those familiar with British faith schools, for example, would expect no less: roughly 30% of students in Catholic schools in England and Wales are not from Catholic families. 

Indeed, speaking in the Vatican in early 2012, Muslim Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, then co-chairperson of Britain’s Conservative Party, explained that she had sent her daughter to a convent school because she knew “she would be free to follow her faith there” and “would not be looked down on because she believed”. 

Ireland’s Church-run schools are not merely inclusive, as a rule, towards those of other faiths, Ms Tuffy explained, but tend towards socio-economic inclusivity too, welcoming both immigrants and Ireland’s poorest.

“If you go to the areas designated most disadvantaged, there are only Catholic schools,” she says, citing how all the DEIS schools – those designated by the Department of Education and Skills to tackle educational disadvantage – in the poorest part of Dublin Mid-West are under Catholic patronage. 

“There’s no doubt that Catholic schools have the highest proportion of DEIS schools by a mile,” she continues, explaining that throughout the country “they’ve a higher percentage of DEIS schools than their total percentage of schools overall – they’re definitely doing their bit.”  

Stressing that “the lion's share of DEIS schools are Catholic national schools”, Ms Tuff points out that in disadvantaged areas like north Clondalkin, the issue of diversity of patronage doesn’t arise. “It’s a middle-class thing,” she says.

Diversity of patronage can in fact be detrimental to social inclusivity, she points out, noting that “there definitely has been a phenomenon of segregation on class and racial grounds” where “some people get to exercise parental choice and others don't”. 

The big losers in situations where is a diversity of patrons tend to be people who are new to areas, whether these be immigrants or simply people who have just moved in, she says. 

The committee had recognised this fact, citing the 2009 ESRI study Adapting to Diversity: Irish Schools and Newcomer Students which surveyed 1,200 school principals and found that schools with “a high proportion of newcomer children tended to be urban schools, often catering for more disadvantaged students”. 

Far from identifying religious discrimination as a serious problem in the Irish educational system, the report instead found that “Where schools are oversubscribed, they tend to operate enrolment polices which favour ‘first come, first served’, and priority to siblings etc. These policies favour more settled communities and newcomer students tend to be under-represented in these schools.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s a Catholic national school, that of St John the Evangelist in Adamstown, that has the country’s highest percentage of immigrant students, but more surprising is the fact that more than 90% of its pupils are of immigrant origin. This figure is all the more startling given that only 9% of pupils nationwide are immigrants or the children of immigrants. It’s hard not to be reminded again of how Britain’s Catholic schools play a key role in building social cohesion through catering for children from ethnic minorities, 27.5% of children in English Catholic schools being from ethnic minorities as compared to the national average of 22.5%.

Keen to emphasise that Educate Together schools in Adamstown and Esker also take in high numbers of pupils from immigrant backgrounds, and that Educate Together schools as a whole are improving in this regard, Ms Tuffy nonetheless follows the 2009 ESRI study in taking issue with those Educate Together schools that operate a ‘first come, first served’ policy. 

“One policy that I’d be very critical of is the ‘first come, first served approach’,” she says. “That’s contributed to immigrants being kept out – they wouldn’t know about it, they wouldn't have the child’s name down in time. If a school’s not oversubscribed it doesn't matter, but if it is, ‘first come, first served’ means children of immigrants lose out.”

The committee’s conclusion on this point last year could hardly have been more blunt, declaring that “the use of waiting lists can give rise to discrimination against newcomers to an area”, and anyone who doubts that segregation is a live issue in Ireland’s educational system need look only at how 80% of pupils from immigrant backgrounds attend a mere 23% of the country’s schools, with 20 schools having two thirds of their pupils from such backgrounds.

Recognising that to some degree schools simply reflect local demographics, Ms Tuffy nonetheless says this isn’t the whole story. “Segregation is an issue, and that comes down to some people exercising choice,” she says. “Diversity of patronage just exacerbates that.”

While it’s possible in an area like Lucan which has several schools to bus children to so they can go to their parents’ school of choice, she says that this would be completely impractical in small towns across the country where local schools must cater for everybody. 

What’s more, she thinks, it would be undesirable: “Increasing diversity is not a good approach as it doesn't cater for villages, and makes the system more divided, moving from a system of Catholic schools that are relatively inclusive to more segregation. It’s just perpetuating things and making things even more divided than currently.”

Reiterating how most people in Ireland simply want their children to go to the local school, she points out that “the issue of diversity of patronage and parental choice is a thing exercised more by middle-class white people”. 

It’s certainly not an issue that the population at the whole are clamouring for, as the Department of Education and Skills’s April 2013 report on parental preferences in 38 areas with regard to primary school patronage made all too clear. 

On the face of it, the report seemed to demonstrate a substantial wish for increased diversity, with the department saying that there was “sufficient parental demand in 23 out of the 38 areas to support an immediate change in the existing school patronage”. However, closer scrutiny of the data revealed that in not even one of the 23 identified areas did more than 8% of parents with children in school respond to surveys to say they wanted change. 

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, long an advocate for dioceses and religious orders divesting themselves of some of the schools they built and remain patrons of, has recently argued that the Church should not be blamed for the slow pace of divestment. Local communities, he says, often oppose divestment, with local politicians even going against national party policies by opposing divestment in their areas.

“This thing of local politicians lining up with residents to resist divestment,” Ms Tuffy says, “when you’re a local politician you can see on the ground what's happening and can see where parents are coming from.

“Divestment hasn't been very popular with parents, and I actually think that’s understandable,” she explains, pointing out that stability and confidence in schools matter to parents. “You’re asking them to move from one kind of patron to another – it’s understandable that parents and school communities don’t want divestment. I absolutely understand where they're coming from. They need to be given more and that situation needs to be understood more.”

The 2009 report found that 80% of schools could take all children who applied to them, but that 20% of schools were oversubscribed; an obvious solution, if a costly one, might seem to be for the State to provide more schools.

“I think you have to build new schools according to need, but I don’t think that’s the answer,” Ms Tuffy disagrees, pointing out that the situation can sometimes look worse than it really is. “Because there isn't a common enrolment and application system with dates and deadlines it can lead to confusion – parents don’t know where they stand and can get the impression that there are no places”. Not knowing exactly where they stand, she says, “parents might apply for several schools, and some may be more oversubscribed than others”.

While more places are definitely needed, she says, we “can fill the bulk of the places at existing schools – we have to address the issue of existing schools.” 

Her long-term objective, she thinks, would be for the State to adopt a single multi-denominational model into which the Church and other groups, religious and otherwise, would be willing to buy. 

“I want to get to a place where over time we’d move to a state multi-denominational system,” she says. “I’m not sure how we’d get there or how long it would take, but it should be possible to come up with model that has everybody on board including the Church.”

Emphasising that this is simply her own view, albeit one shared by others across Ireland’s political spectrum, she says it is worth going back to “the original idea of a national school”. There was a time, she says, Church-run schools could effectively meet the needs of an overwhelmingly Catholic population, but things are not so simple now. 

“It’s important in our model, whatever model we come up with, to be inclusive from a social point of view,” she says. “Diversity could lead to much more segregation on class and racial grounds. I don’t think that’s a good thing at all. Our ultimate objective should be local schools for local children, with equality between schools, so you don’t start having exclusive Catholic schools for just Catholics, and some going to Educate Together. We need to move towards a more equal system.

“Personally I don’t have any hang ups on whether religion is taught within or outside of school”, she says, insisting that she’s “not a purist when it comes to this issue” and that it’s important to be willing to compromise.

“You have to keep people on board,” she says. “If you want to develop a model of multidenominational school, you want Muslims etc. to buy in.”

Acknowledging that people haven’t shown a great desire so far to change the current system, she says “maybe with a state model people might be more willing to change – it won’t happen overnight, and it needs to be negotiated with stakeholders”.

In the meantime, Ms Tuffy says, the country’s schools should strive to serve as many of the country’s children as possible, heedless of their status. “There’s been a tradition of Catholic schools, which is still predominant, of being inclusive on a socio-economic basis, taking travellers and people of different faiths. I wouldn't like to lose that.”