Seanad Éireann - Volume 113 - 08 July, 1986

Adjournment Matter. - Teachers in Catholic Schools.

Mr. M. Higgins: The Irish Press of Monday, 30 June 1986 contained an item [2099] under the heading “Catholic Rule on Teachers Stays”. In the course of this report by Pat Holmes, The Irish Press education correspondent, remarks are attributed to Mr. Oliver Ryan, Chairman of the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association, to the effect that a meeting had been sought with his organisation by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation to discuss a guideline to which the INTO had overwhelmingly objected at their annual conference last Easter. The guidelines that were referred to were: (1) that teachers being appointed should be “practicing Catholics”, and (2) teachers should be “committed to handing on the faith”. Mr. Ryan is quoted as going on to say that he felt that this issue was “part and parcel of the fabric of the Catholic school” and that this guideline “will not be withdrawn under any circumstance”.

The two events that have taken place since I last raised this matter in Seanad Éireann have, therefore, been the statement by the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association just recently and the annual conference of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation. I raised this matter on 11 December 1985 and on 5 June 1986 I raised a related issue regarding the patronage of schools. A number of issues that I have raised have not been satisfactorily answered and I want to return to them now.

Let me put the matter very simply. What is at stake is the constitutional right to teach, or to express and extend that right that, once one has met the criteria of professional training, competence and general suitability, one has the right to expect to be appointed to an assistant teachership position in the Irish national school system. On 11 December 1985 the present Minister's predecessor again and again in her speech reported in the Official Report columns 869 to 876 volume 110, drew a distinction between appointment and qualification. I quote her from column 872:

It is a condition of all whole time [2100] appointments in national schools that the teachers must be qualified in accordance with the rules and my Department will not approve appointments for the purposes of the payment of salary unless these rules are observed. The Senator may, therefore rest assured that my function as Minister in setting down minimum standards, is exercised to the full in respect of the appointment of teachers.

I accept that. I have no doubt whatever that the Minister was interested in the qualification of teachers. However, she went on to say:

The procedure for the appointment of teachers and the means of selecting qualified candidates for appointments to posts in national schools is, of course, an entirely different matter. Following consultations with the patrons, boards of management were established in national schools in 1975, to replace individual managers in the carrying out of the functions vested in local management. Among these functions is the appointment of teachers. I would point out to the Senator that parents are on boards of management and parent representatives are members of the Catholic Primary Managers' Association. There are two parents elected from the school to every board. There is a parents' association in almost every school. So there is a very definite and laid out role for parents in these functions.

What the Minister did not state on 11 December 1985 is that there were two to three times the number of nominees on the board who were representatives of the patron, nor did she point out that one of the nominees of the patron would in fact serve as chairperson of the board or that the parents' selection process having been exhausted, at that stage the patron's nominees would be appointed. That is the parents' involvement in relation to the running of the schools. It is not the matter that immediately concerns me, but I repeat my question which I asked [2101] again on 5 June 1986: where is the statutory justification for the patron's power? Where is the statutory justification for the patron's position in the national school system?

I have gone in search of this in all of the usual places — for example, in the document known as the Boards of Management of National Schools, Constitution of Boards and Rules of Procedure. That document gives a description of functions which the Minister allocates to patrons. It has no reference number, and pagination is not indicated. In the first page it states very clearly that the patron is the person or body of persons recognised as such by the Minister for Education. The patron may manage the school himself or may nominate a suitable person or body of persons to act as managers. Subject to the approval of the Minister the patron may at any time resume the direct management of the school or may nominate another manager.

This brings us circuitously to the point that is very much at issue which concerns the right to teach. I am leaving aside another right at the moment, a right which I thought existed but which I now believe is not effective, the right to be trained as a teacher if you are not a member of a denomination. In this country it is not possible to train to be a teacher if you are in that position, which makes its own comment on us.

In relation to the Department of Education's primary branch, the Minister in November 1984 issued an additional document which changed paragraph 23 of the basic document, RR154660, governing the management of national schools. An additional change was to lay out, as it does in pages 12 to 22, conditions for the appointments of teachers.

On the last occasion, I welcomed this from the then Minister for Education, Deputy Hussey. It was a genuine attempt to eliminate sexism from the process of interviewing for appointments to posts, but there is a problem. If all this is just addressed to the question of who is qualified, [2102] what factors influence the appointment of a teacher? We are now facing conflict which is inevitable both in terms of the organised teaching profession and also of a constitutional kind as to which set of criteria will be implemented. It will be possible for a teacher, for example, to go through the process of qualification but yet know that although all the qualifications have been met that is not a criterion for appointment. The Minister may say he will ensure that nobody unqualified will be appointed but what about the 51 rules of the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association which their chairman said are not matters for negotiation.

What is the teacher to say at the interview if asked if he or she is a practising Catholic or committed to handing on the faith? Here instantly, I will list an issue which is illegal and unconstitutional. There is a reference in the question of the running of schools to the teaching of religion but there is no reference to the faith. There are many people who believe that they can teach religion comparatively, teach it with respect as it should be taught, but it is a different question altogether to be asked if you are handing on the faith, and what faith are you speaking of? How do people know if you are a practising Catholic? Is it to be measured? I will not repeat myself. My views are clear from my remarks of 11 December 1985. I asked if it was to be in terms of behavioural practice? Is it to be in terms of religiosity? If you saw a statue moving would it qualify for 15 years non attendance — without being too offensive?

The next question that arises is in relation to what happens when the school numbers decrease and a teacher becomes redundant. The redundant teacher, as the Minister acknowledged on 11 December 1985, can go onto a panel of qualified people but would have to go before an interview board and answer this question in the affirmative so you could find yourself, practising, lapsing and practising as the numbers went down only to lapse again if the numbers went down in the new school and so on. It is [2103] an absolute absurdity and it would be absurd if it were not so offensive to a profession. It also clearly indicates — I am used to the phrase — that we do not have State primary education which is what we pay our taxes to sustain. We pay teachers' salaries, light, heating and so on, but we have accorded to some form of ancient ground landlords in relation to the schools, the right to establish what is and can be seen from all of this as sectarian education and I oppose it.

People wonder what can be done. There is a concession which I liked when I was looking through this. I have no great quibble with the two rules quoted by Deputy Hussey when she was Minister. Rule 68 on page 38 of the rules of the national schools under the Department of Education says that of all the parts of school curriculum religious instruction is by far the most important as its subject matter. God's honour and service include the proper use of all man's faculties. One could go on. I need not quibble with this. But this has been taken a step further and it has now been suggested that in interviews the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association will have nominees who can ask whether you are a practising Catholic and if you are committed to handing on the faith with all the other attendant questions. People have been asked what form of family planning they practice, what other attitudes they have and so on. This is very wrong, it has to end and we must grasp the nettle. If people want denominational education let them have it, but those of us who are paying for a State primary system, for the training of teachers, and who want to see those teachers carry out their duties with professional competence equally have some rights.

We faced issues like this a very long time ago. I refer to the case of Miss Dunbar Harrison in Mayo who was appointed by the Local Appointments Commission as a librarian. When she had opted to work in Mayo she was told that 24 out of the 26 members of the library committee would not have her. She was a Protestant and a Trinity graduate. Later [2104] someone said that it would be all right if she was handing out books but that she might recommend a book to somebody and no less a person than Mr. de Valera suggested that Mayo people were entitled to have someone they wanted handing books out to children. I hoped we had come a long way since 1931. We are now in 1986 with questions like this being pointed out. Who are the people who advise boards of management and appointment boards, these vigilantes as I referred to them before? How will you satisfy them? Maybe you did not go to Church where they could see you? Maybe you went in the city in the evening when you should have gone in the morning under their vigilance, but maybe you will do something that is much worse.

You can sail into the interview and say, that you are practising Catholic, and committed to handing on the faith with all the assurance of cynicism and with all the damage that will cause to the teaching profession. If we qualify people and if we have criteria for qualifications, we must accept the responsibility of not allowing the criteria of professional competence, ability and overall suitability to be frustrated by any other form of questioning. I worry about this in circumstances where, for example, there will be vacancies, where teachers will have to apply for them and I am worried about the abuse of it by a kind of a spiritually prurient group of people who may say to someone who is a very spiritual person, who wants to teach science, who wants to teach comparative religion, that they are not practising in the way they mean practising. We are allowing the law and the administration of education to sink into the gutter when we agree to that. It is sectarianism straight and simple.

I have four children attending national schools, one going to one denomination and three going to another and I would like them to be taught by someone who has respect for science and comparative religion. I would respect that teacher a great deal more than someone who had to be intimidated into answering questions. I conclude by saying to the Minister — I repeated it to his Minister of State [2105] — where and when did the people for whom the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association claim to speak hand over their rights under Article 42 of the Constitution? I accept the Supreme Court distinction for the moment between the State providing for education and the State being the educator. Where and when did the parents of this State hand over to the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association their rights to educate their children as they exist in Article 42 of the Constitution? Where did they give that group of people the right to put questions like this into the mouths of interviewers?

I am not a bit sorry that this is going on so late. I am only sorry more people cannot listen to it because I think it is an extremely important matter. It is a matter that will occur again and again. I feel it is a shocking indictment to know that for the children of this country not only can they not go to pluralist education but that they cannot even get into the classroom where they will not be taught by someone who has had to answer questions like this from an unrepresentative, undemocratic body. Who are these people, and what secret organisations of a Catholic kind are in their midst? As we know very well, we have both Opus Dei and the Knights of Columbanus. I object to these people sitting in judgement on qualified teachers that I and other parents want to teach our children.

Minister for Education (Mr. Cooney): One might be tempted to follow Senator Higgins with the excessive language that he has used during the course of his contribution. But it does not do the debate any good to indulge in that kind of excessive flamboyant and inaccurate rhetoric.

Mr. M.D. Higgins: It is not inaccurate.

Mr. Cooney: The Senator raised this subject here on 11 December. My predecessor gave him a comprehensive reply. She must have been talking to herself because it is quite clear that Senator Higgins has paid absolutely no heed to the fundamental points that she made in [2106] the course of her reply. At the end of the speech he indicated he acknowledged the distinction in Article 42 which makes it very clear that the State, in our educational scene, provides for primary education, it does not provide primary education. At the end of Senator Higgins' speech he acknowledged that distinction, but the entire theme of his speech was that the education system in the country is a State system of education. It is a State-supported system of education, and this is a fundamental distinction of primary importance. All Senator Higgins' difficulties flow from his inability to recognise that fundamental, obvious and long-standing distinction. If Senator Higgins would only recognise it, he would then be able to avoid the excessive indignation that he has displayed here — genuinely felt I am quite sure, but based entirely on a false premise.

Mr. M. Higgins: Can a non-practising Catholic be appointed by the Minister, if he wants to be so accurate?

Mr. Cooney: Those who drafted the Constitution had to take into account the historical context of our whole system of national schools. The reality is that the schools are not State-owned schools; they are schools which are aided and assisted by the State, provided they comply with certain criteria and conditions which are laid down on the Rules for National Schools. The schools are managed at local level and the power of management is vested in the patron, who may manage the schools himself or may appoint a person or board of management to manage the schools on his behalf. In the case of denominational schools — and this is not new to the Senator or to anybody in the House — the patron has with few exceptions in recent years been the ordinary of the diocese in which the schools are established. Until 1975 the management was exercised on the patrons' behalf by an individual manager. In 1975 there was a change and the boards of management were set up. Senator Higgins apparently does not like the format of the boards of management. They probably [2107] do not go far enough in terms of parent representation. But in 1975, for the first time, there was provision made for expanded boards of management, including elected representatives of the parents.

Mr. M. Higgins: Two for the parents; six for the Bishops.

Mr. Cooney: The Rules for National Schools lay down conditions for the payment of salaries to teachers and the operation of schools which are the subject of grant aid. These rules, with regard to the appointment of teachers, deal with matters such as the professional qualifications and experience required for certain posts and the accompanying procedures may be derived in consultation with representatives of the patrons and the teachers' organisations. They cover such matters as the advertising of posts, composition of selection boards, the necessity to establish criteria for selection and observance of the Employment Equality Act and the relevant sections of the code of procedure of the Employment Equality Agency. While the rules do not lay down religious qualifications as such for teaching appointments in the schools, they recognise the right of management to refuse to accept a particular teacher on grounds of faith and morals. The concern of school authorities with regard to the religious standing of the teachers and principals they appoint clearly derives from the denominational nature of the schools and from the fact that as well as teaching secular subjects the teachers are also teachers of religion and carry responsibility for the religious and moral development of the pupils under their care.

I would like to refer to the part of the motion which refers to a recent statement from the School Managers' Associations. I am sure the Senator is referring to the journal of the Catholic Primary Schools Managers' Association. They set down the criteria, the professional and personal [2108] qualities which might be sought of applicants to ensure, in the view of that association, they they could properly fulfil the duties of their post. We are talking about denominational national schools. That is what we are talking about. That is what we have here.

On the question of rights — and the Senator's entire theme has been with regard to the rights of teachers to teach without any inquiry into other criteria, having regard to the fact that they are being recruited to teach largely in denominational schools — I would not have to remind the Senator that rights do not exist in isolation. Within the reality of the national school system any concern for the rights of one group has to be considered in the context of the legitimate and, under the Constitution, inalienable rights of other groups.

Mr. M. Higgins: But where do the rights of the patrons come from, Minister?

Mr. Cooney: In this matter we have to consider the balance of the rights of the parties involved. First and foremost, there are the rights of the parents.

Mr. M. Higgins: Yes.

Mr. Cooney: And Senator Higgins has not mentioned the rights of the parents once in the course of his entire contribution.

Mr. M. Higgins: I object. I mentioned the number of representatives that parents had on boards of management. I said that I was a parent myself. That is untrue.

Mr. Cooney: I think Senator Higgins's emotions——

Mr. M. Higgins: What the Minister is saying is just not true.

Mr. O'Mahony: There is no such thing as denominational national schools; they [2109] are either national schools or denominational schools. There is no such thing as both.

Mr. Cooney: Let me finish. I am talking at this stage about the rights of the parents. I think the rights of the parents have to be considered. I am disappointed that those rights did not seem——

Mr. M. Higgins: I spoke of the rights of parents.

Mr. Cooney: The rights of parents have to be——

Mr. O'Mahony: There is no such thing——

Acting Chairman (Mr. Daly): If the Minister is not allowed to speak, I will have to adjourn the House.

Mr. O'Mahony: I said there is no such thing as denominational national schools. You cannot have both.

Mr. Cooney: I do not know what world the Senators are living in. We have in this country a system of denominational education. The vast majority——

Mrs. McGuinness: Those students had to fight for years to get it.

Mr. Cooney: The vast majority of schools in this country are denominational. That has been the historical position here and that is still the position. The rights of the parents who send their children to those schools include the right to ensure that in those schools the particular faith of the denomination to which they belong——

Mrs. McGuinness: Are you seriously suggesting it is the parents that want it? Grow up.

Mr. Cooney: ——should be passed on to their children. That has been the position. They are the rights that have to take precedence. Where parents of a particular [2110] denomination send their children to schools of the denomination in question they have a right to expect that the religious and moral formation of their children will be reinforced both by precept and example. That is the parents' right and that is what we have to consider.

Mr. M. Higgins: And to be represented, as I said.

Mr. Cooney: Teachers also have rights.

Acting Chairman: If the Minister is not allowed to reply I will have to adjourn the House.

Mr. Cooney: Teachers also have rights. But in this context their rights are not absolute; their rights have to be subject to the rights of the parents and the pupils. Nobody could disagree with that proposition. It seems to me to be self-evident and valid a priori. I might also make the point that in our educational system we have a number of different types of schools. Senator Higgins has been calling in aid the concept of pluralism — a most complex and complicated concept capable of many applications. There are many visions of what a pluralist state is and there are many ways in which people can interpret the word pluralism and apply it to whatever they want to apply it to at a particular point in their argument.

One vision of a pluralist State might be where State and Church functions are totally separated and where State aid for schools excludes both religious instruction and religious formation. Another vision and equally valid might be one of multi-denominational schools where pupils of all denominations are educated together, with provision for separate religious instructions. We have such schools here. Where there is a demand for such schools there is provision for setting them up. Yet another vision is one where schools organised on denominational lines exist together in respect and harmony and are separated in their educational efforts by a State which is scrupulous to ensure that all the schools [2111] are treated fairly and equally.

We are the inheritors of a denominational system and I am not talking about any one denomination. We are the inheritors of a denominational system for numerous denominations which have served this country well and I have no indication from any authoritative source — I say that without being in any way pejorative towards the Senator — and especially not from parents, nor from minority religions, that there exists any serious desire to have it radically altered. The system allows for and has assisted the development of multi-denominational schools where it has been established that there is sufficient parental demand to support a viable school. The rules further ensure that the religious convictions of the parents of pupils [2112] attending all national schools are fully respected with regard to the arrangements to be made for religious instruction.

I hope what I have said to the Senator here tonight, taken in conjunction with what my predecessor said here as recently as 11 December 1985 at greater length and with more technical detail, fully outlines the principles under which the schools are conducted and under which teachers are recruited to posts within these schools. May I conclude by saying that there is absolutely no demand, and no indication to me that there is the slightest wish on the part of the parents, to have any of the present procedures altered.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.35 a.m. on Wednesday 9 July 1986 until 10.30 a.m.