A slow decline of Catholicism in the classroom
When John Paul II arrived here, multi-denominational education had barely begun. Pope Francis will survey a changed landscape, writes education editor KATHERINE DONNELLY
When Pope John Paul visited Ireland in 1979, the activities of a small group of parents in south Dublin involved in a primary school “project” were unlikely to have been on his radar.
Only 12 months earlier, the Dalkey School Project had opened its doors to 90 pupils. The winds of social change were stirring and these, more liberally-minded, parents did not want a Church-controlled education for their children.
When the national schools system was established in 1831, it wasn’t meant to be run by the religious, but the churches moved in. They were left to it by successive governments, happy that the religious had the sites and the money to build schools. Since then, the Catholic Church has dominated, not only in terms of scale, but in its general influence.
The Dalkey School Project had a difficult gestation, with no support from the minister for education through the mid 1970s, a particularly conservative Fine Gaeler, Dick Burke. Áine Hyland, now Emeritus Professor of Education at UCC, who was one of those parents, credits the support of the new Fianna Fáil government, under Jack Lynch, for its eventual opening.
Dalkey was the foundation stone for Educate Together, a multi-denominational patron body, which has been a catalyst for change in Irish education. The history of the Catholic Church as well as in its relationship with Irish education show that change, if and when it happens at all, comes slowly.
But, when Pope Francis lands in Ireland, he will be kissing ground where sods have been turned for a different educational landscape than that which greeted Pope John Paul II.
The intervening 39 years have seen a slow and steady whittling away at tradition and mind set, and a confronting of new realities.
Ireland has witnessed a large fall off in adherence to the faith among the sons, daughters, grandchildren of those who turned out for Pope John Paul II.
Alongside that, the influx of immigrants since the early noughties brought a wider cultural and religious mix; new families, many of whom do not want a Catholic education for their children.
An education system where 90pc of primary schools were under Catholic Church control was at odds with these societal shifts.
Educate Together slogged away in the face of Church opposition and conservatism within political and Department of Education circles. Its current count of 82 primary schools makes it a minnow in a sector with more than 3,200. It is now also involved in nine at post-primary (either as patron or co-patron).
Pressure for reform of a church-dominated system was mounting elsewhere, including The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC).
In 2008, the first community national school under the auspices of a vocational education committee (now an education and training board) became the first State-run primary school. There are now 12.
The real political will came with Labour’s