Protestant school ethos under threat in south

The Most Revd Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh.

The Most Revd Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh.

Ten Church of Ireland bishops have expressed concern over the future of Protestant schools in the Irish Republic under their control.

Church-controlled primary schools are embedded in communities across the Republic and have a long–standing tradition of inclusivity, of welcoming pupils from differing faith traditions, many from no faith backgrounds.

The church response is a reaction to a schools’ overhaul by the Republic’s education minister Richard Bruton. The bishops reiterate that Church of Ireland schools are “child–centred, co–educational and faith based, Christian in ethos”.

“Christian faith acknowledges the value and uniqueness of every human being and demands that each individual is treated with respect, kindness and love. A Christian ethos demands of its school that every child should be enabled to flourish and that every child understands the importance of striving to reach their potential with integrity and humility.

“Church of Ireland schools are democratically run with parents, teachers and church in partnership, providing an inclusive, effective and comprehensive curriculum with an attractive ethos that responds to academic, cultural, personal and spiritual needs of pupils,” say the bishops.

“While Church of Ireland ethos permeates all aspects of the education, schools under church patronage take moral and personal values strongest in Christian faith and promote those values amongst students regardless of their faith. Many non–religious parents see Church of Ireland school ethos as morally and spiritually attractive for their children.”

Three Northern Ireland bishops with parishes stretching into the Republic signed the statement: Rev Dr Richard Clarke (Armagh), Rev John McDowell (Clogher) and Rev Ken Good (Derry and Raphoe). “It is difficult to reconcile what we know and experience about the schools under Church of Ireland patronage with much public debate around school admissions and primary education in general,” they point out.

The minister said given the make–up of the Republic’s population, “if a Protestant or an Islamic primary school was prohibited from using religion as an admissions’ criterion, it is hard to see how it could maintain an ethos among its school community and remain a school of that religion in a real sense”.

The bishops counter: “Seeking to radically undermine legal protections supporting provision of faith-based education by religious minorities in Ireland will do little for equality or fairness in Irish education. Changes will create a new cohort of children excluded from education in their own faith. Church schools are important to Church of Ireland communities, providing an invaluable focal point for a faith community widely dispersed. Minority denomination rights must not be trampled on in a race to a populist understanding of pluralism.”

• The Irish Republic remains a strongly Roman Catholic country, with 78.3 per cent identifying as such. Church of Ireland members total 120,000, or 2.65 per cent. Presbyterians number 25,000.