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The New Souperism

John Horgan

Schools and the politics of religion and diversity in the Republic of Ireland: Separate but equal?, by Karin Fischer, Manchester University Press,  248 p, £75, ISBN: 978-0719091964

In a recent interview about his options for dealing with the charged issue of denominationally based discrimination affecting access to primary schools, Ireland’s Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, accepted that if a primary school system were to be designed from scratch today, you wouldn’t end up with what we actually have. This invaluable book tells the story of how we got to where we are today – and it is not an edifying story.

Denominationalism in our primary school system still in fact, to a very large extent, reflects Henry Ford’s famous dictum: “You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black.” Black, in this case, means not only denominational but effectively clerical control. Even today, few people are aware that our primary school system (misnamed “national”), imposed on us by the British (who tended to use the Irish component of the “United Kingdom” as a useful laboratory for social and political experimentation, as well as for economic and labour force exploitation) was initially designed to be non-sectarian. There is even evidence in the Department of Education archives right up to the 1940s of inspectors investigating complaints about – among other things – schools in which prayers were said during secular instruction, or where religious emblems or statues were displayed.

At the end of the tumultuous first two decades of the twentieth century, the teeth had been drawn from the Catholic church’s deep suspicion of militant republicanism, when our revolutionaries made it clear that religious control of education would not be tampered with under any new political dispensation, Free State or Republic. Not long afterwards, General Sean Mac Eoin, invited by WT Cosgrave to choose a cabinet position for himself, chose education – because, he reportedly said, he had already done his bit for the country. One of his Fine Gael successors, Richard Mulcahy,  restated this deep sense of commitment to the nation’s children by describing his ministerial function as applying any necessary oil required to keep the machinery turning smoothly. The lubricant, of course, was money – taxpayers’ money.

And after Fianna Fáil came to power, the 1937 constitution embodied the status quo in a de Valerian masterpiece of subtlety in article 42.4, where it is stated: “The State shall provide for free primary education …” The critical word here is “for”. Perish the thought that the state would put itself under an obligation to actually provide free primary education, or indeed free education of any sort. Education was seen as an agency business best carried out by others who had an ideological investment in the area, together with substantial resources (not to mention political power), and whose goodwill was, in any case, greatly to be desired. As Fischer reminds us, the Catholic church had opposed free education in the 1930s.

A simple suggestion might be to campaign for a constitutional amendment to remove the word “for” from Article 42.4 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which would then require the state to actually provide free primary education, rather than relying on verbal, political and financial sleight of hand to avoid this fundamental responsibility. A campaign to remove this single word might well attract substantial popular support, and if successful would have the wholly beneficial effect of changing our national school system from an aided system to a provided system. The proposal alone would facilitate a debate about, and perhaps in time a move towards, a system no longer constricted, like the unfortunate travellers consigned to Procrustes’ bed, by the denominational axe-work of recent decades, with proper guarantees for the civil rights of all involved and for the accountability of public funds.

Our history resulted in the evolution of a system which bore (and still bears) an astonishing resemblance to the management model adopted by the British empire in many of its colonies, particularly India. This was a sort of indirect oversight, rather than a system of direct provision (which would be dangerously vulnerable to questions of accountability). It was a system in which powerful local leaders were carefully identified, flattered, and bribed with guns and whiskey to supervise their own tribesmen, and to ensure their people’s socialisation into approved and economically productive modes of obeisance and gratitude. Any resemblance to our present primary school system is, of course, entirely coincidental.

In Ireland things eventually started to change, as emigration fell, educational standards rose and the idea of education as a producer-driven system began to falter when the rights of teachers, parents and others (but not, as yet, of children) began to be articulated on the fringes of educational discourse.

Although the general perception is that our primary school system has remained virtually unchanged since the 1830s, some of the developments affecting the rights of parents and children, many of them embodying new forms of discrimination or case-hardening older ones, are of surprisingly recent origin. For over a century until 1965, all primary schools had to obey rules which set down in great detail the need for separate religious and secular instruction. These provisions, however, were effectively overturned by the 1965 rule change, foreshadowed as far back as the 1940s, which laid it down that that “a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”.

The impetus for this dramatic change is unknown, certainly to me. But it is worth remembering that the mid-sixties were a time of ferment, in organised religion (and particularly in the Catholic church) and in the world; of the growth of the idea of child-centred education; and of a lessening of the power of traditional authority. The National School Rules, which must have been in preparation for quite some time, and were issued in January of that year, were promulgated three months before the minister, Patrick Hillery, left office. Hillery probably had other, and to his mind weightier, educational matters on his mind, not least his negotiations with the Catholic bishops about the new comprehensive schools. Was this a bargaining chip? We will never know. But it is beyond doubt that Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin, who was publicly opposed to Maria Montessori and her ideas, had been in office for a quarter of a century, and who was one of the two most powerful figures in an Irish Catholicism then at the zenith of its influence, would have had a finger (or several fingers) in that pie.

This 1971 revision of the curriculum, astonishingly, combined an ostensible grounding in the concept of child-centred education with the contradictory, and equally confident, 1965 proclamation of the central importance of a particular brand of received wisdom and religious observance in the social formation of young children. This inherent contradiction received little attention at the time, even though among its effects was to confirm the actual position of children at the bottom of everyone’s list of educational priorities.

Here I have to declare an interest, or perhaps admit some responsibility. I was at the time a newly-fledged education reporter on The Irish Times, and had been for about a year.  Together with many other journalists writing about these rules, we were gazing with such fascination at this so-modern idea of child-centred education, like a rabbit trapped in car headlights, that we totally overlooked the trajectory the vehicle behind the headlights was taking.

A later but equally important major change, the “baptism barrier”, dates to 1974, and arose not in relation to Catholic schools but during the controversy at St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland national school in Dalkey. There, parents of all denominations, attempting to broaden the culture of the school, were defeated by the opposition of the patronage system and the Department of Education. This led eventually to the establishment of Educate Together, a movement which Fischer analyses sympathetically but not uncritically.

The 1998 Education Act asserted that all children would have equal rights of access to national schools, but lasted, in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back way, only until the Equal Status Act of 2000 converted the de facto right of a school patron to discriminate against applicants on denominational grounds into a de jure one. All this, has of course created powerful new obstacles to the unscrambling of the primary school omelette. We are now knee-deep in the swamp of unintended consequences, and engaged in febrile debates about parental choice, baptism barriers, minority rights, children’s rights (at last!), divestment, “ethos”, “community” gaelscoileanna, religious education, multi-denominational and inter-denominational education, and the unresolved tension between religious education and catechetical formation of a strictly denominational kind.  A substantial by-product of these often unfocused debates has been confusion and, I suspect, deliberately induced ambiguity about what some of these words actually mean, enhanced by dazzling verbal and ideological footwork.

Much of this educational three-card-trick stuff is skewered, politely but with enviable precision, by Fischer’s ruthless textual analysis. As she makes clear in one of her central discussions, many of the developments that have taken place under public pressure since 1970 have generated an official policy to “optimise parental choice”. This policy, as she points out, has been worked out in ways which have enabled state and church interests alike to shy away from the question of addressing any fundamental reform of the system. Even Educate Together, as Fischer observes, has been shoe-horned into a corner where it can be treated as a safe and allowable add-on to the general patronage model rather than a challenge to it.

Buried in this official policy, however, (and not too deeply) is a fundamental and perhaps lethal ideological, financial and structural time-bomb. Fischer cites two Irish scholars who have drawn attention to the uncomfortable fact that “the new politics of school choice” actually “supports a continuation of the patronage system as deriving from a neo-liberal vision of parents as educational consumers”. As the choices of all parents simply cannot be built into any educational system, it follows that some parents will always be disappointed, and that the future development of education will be increasingly characterised by a war of attrition in which the borders of denominationally controlled education are incrementally pushed back (but not too far), without any fundamental re-examination of the role of education as such or the structure of the system as a whole.

In this scenario, the parts of the educational landscape reluctantly abandoned by the churches as part of a process of retrenchment, divestment or whatever you’re having yourself will simply be repopulated by various groups all competing (but not all of them successfully) for slices of the financial pie in the name of variously defined and contested “rights” or “choices”.  Carried to its logical extremes, it will inevitably create unmanageably complex scenarios for both educational planning and financing. These difficulties are also related directly to what has been described as the “baptism barrier”, which Fischer explores with her customary level of detail and command of facts. Opinions about its significance vary: Catholic authorities maintain that it affects only a small number of children in a small number of schools and have suggested, as a compromise, that baptisms need not take place if parents accept that they will support the “ethos” of the school concerned.  However, a recent survey by the Equate organisation found that a quarter of all parents had baptised their children purely in order to conform to school admission policies in their areas. This is hardly surprising, given that almost a third of all marriages nowadays are non-religious in character; but the barrier, the compromise, and the statistics, demonstrate the existence of a problem which, it can be argued, is of even greater significance than is admitted by either side.

It can be stated ‑ perhaps uncharitably, for there are many Christian and other parents who sincerely believe, regardless of what words actually mean or of what a school does in practice that a denominational school can also be a non-problematically “inclusive” one ‑ in the following terms.  The proposed compromise means that denominational patrons, in demanding such undertakings, are effectively requiring Irish adults to either abandon or misrepresent their own beliefs, or hypocritically assent to the beliefs of others, to secure access to a school paid for out of public funds. Is this appropriate, or intellectually honest, behaviour on the part of any church which claims to occupy the high moral ground in this and so many other areas?

Worse again are the cases where the baptismal barrier still formally exists (no matter how exceptionally), or where parents (like those in the Equate survey) bow to the power of the patrons and arrange for their children to participate in a form of religious observance in which they themselves do not believe in order to secure educational and social benefits. We had a word for this in the 1840s: it was called souperism. And the shabby, makeshift compromise designed to confuse the unwary could best be described as souperism lite.

As Fischer also reminds us, the state decided in 1999 to fund all the capital costs of new primary schools (apparently to prevent denominational patrons from objecting to the increasing generosity being displayed towards schools under Educate Together patronage). This has magnified, rather than eliminated, one of the original anomalies in the system ‑ the convenient semi-fiction that because patrons had traditionally provided sites, and a varying proportion of the building costs, these were still notionally private schools and the patrons were therefore fully entitled to insist on their denominational character. All existing school patrons (of all denominations and none) can now relax in the knowledge that where new schools are agreed, their owners will be given even greater access than before to public money without even the semblance of any extension of public accountability or control.

A great merit of Fischer’s book is that it incorporates this and other issues and debates without losing its way in irrelevancies or minor issues and, in the process (or so I believe) identifies some core issues to which all these controversies can be related and of which they are symptoms. One of these issues is the central purpose of public education, and the difficulty of reconciling this central purpose with the central purpose of our denominationally and patronage-controlled primary school system as it currently exists. The central purpose of public, taxpayer-funded primary education, as Fischer sees it, is (or ought to be), as well as the inculcation in young people of basic social and intellectual skills, their education in the acknowledgment and reinforcement of the civil rights of all involved, and in the importance of citizenship in a free and democratic society. Can anyone, looking at the failures and scandals that have littered our public life over the past several decades, deny that an appreciation of the responsibilities of citizenship – as well as its rights – has sometimes been in short supply, or wonder why our denominational educational system has been so remiss in supplying it?

Despite the heroic efforts of many teachers to educate their pupils in this regard, and indeed to campaign for structural reform in education (the role of many brave members of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation is generously and appropriately saluted in this book), the primary function of a denominational school, as exemplified in the subtle and not so subtle rearguard actions of all the churches in defending their turf over the past four decades or so (the evidence for this in Fischer’s book is indisputable), is something quite different. It is the education and social reproduction of a denominationally loyal population, in spite of the shrinkage caused by external influences, the falling numbers of denominational personnel, and profound sociological and cultural change.

This has been reinforced in the secondary sector (which does not fall within the compass of Fischer’s book) by the almost subterranean, and certainly not publicly discussed, way in which the vocational authorities have been persuaded, or coerced, in recent years to adopt “deeds of trust” for a large number of community colleges, giving the Catholic church a powerful legal foothold in these ostensibly secular schools.

The extent of the cultural and social change to which this rearguard action is evidently a response can be readily demonstrated. In 1987, when the editors of the General Introduction to Irish Studies were preparing that volume, a survey found that 61 per cent of the Irish population claimed to be “very religious”, and 60 per cent said that they would definitely miss the Catholic church if it were gone; only 34 per cent said that they would miss television if it were to disappear.  When the same questions were asked for an IPSO-MRBI survey commissioned by the Broadcast Authority of Ireland in 2013, only 30 per cent of Irish people said that they would miss the Catholic church if it were gone, but 55 per cent that that they would miss television.

The social reality illuminated by these and other statistics suggests that the pressure for change will continue to increase. But the churches, even if no longer occupying the high moral ground, will be aware that possession is nine-tenths of the law. The minority churches or denominations, in particular, will also be understandably anxious about the effects on their smaller schools if a genuinely secular educational system were established in which all parents could send their children to their nearest school without having to worry about denominational issues or educational quality. 

Until radical solutions are proposed, we may expect that the Catholic authorities will defend the smaller schools as a way of defending their powerful position within the status quo. As the woman threatened with physical violence is supposed to have said, rapidly picking up her infant, “Hit me now with the child in me arms!” Meanwhile the big issue about the difficulty of achieving educational equality in a society marked by increasing social, and even racial segregation and inequality in housing, income and access to public services, will not be easily resolved, certainly not by education on its own.

However, as Fischer illustrates with disarming simplicity, not only could some of this be done, but it has been done.  In Quebec, she points out, the primary educational system was in certain key aspects almost a facsimile of ours. Since the early 1990s, however, the credibility crisis affecting all the churches involved has led to a major debate and, eventually, a constitutional amendment in 1997 which effectively put an end to the denominational status of Quebec schools. The subsequent 1998 education act declared, with breathtaking simplicity, that “the educational project of the school must respect the freedom of conscience and religion of the students, the parents and the school staff”. A later (2005) law has created a situation in which a syllabus of “ethics and religious culture” is now common to all Quebec schools, replacing all denominational courses.

And Ireland? As Fischer points out, since 2011 Ireland’s major political parties have confined their clarion calls for reform to the milquetoast advocacy of the need to include parent opinion in surveys about school patronage, and “the only political parties calling explicitly and consistently for structural educational reform have been (. . .) the Irish Socialist Party and the Irish Workers’ Party”.  Words fail me.

But for any of the necessary reform to happen there would have to be created a new coalition – which could well include political parties who have woken up to what is happening, but also citizens of all denominations or none who can accept that the primary purpose of public education is civic rather than religious, that public accountability and control is an inseparable condition attached to the disbursement of public money, and that denominational religious formation is the business of parents and the denominational communities concerned rather than of the school. Our primary schools, after all, are bricks and mortar, largely paid for by the general public regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack of them, and regardless of whether they have children or not. Schools do not have “faith”.


John Horgan reported on education for the The Irish Times and the Education Times from 1964 to 1975, and was education spokesman for the Labour Party in Dáil Eireann from 1977 to 1981.