Minister for Education’s Dail answer is misleading about religious ethos of Model Schools

Last week Minister for Education Richard Bruton answered a written Dail question from Ruth Coppinger TD about the status of religious instruction in schools in which he or a public body is the Patron. Minister Bruton’s answer began:

“As Minister for Education and Skills, in accordance with the Education Act 1998, I am currently the Patron of the nine model schools. The nine model schools operate as denominational Catholic or Protestant schools in accordance with the historic traditions that go back to their foundation and the community to be served at the time they were established.”

This statement is at best misleading. It creates an impression that these schools were founded as denominational schools. In fact they were established, in the 1840s, specifically as non-denominational schools, and it was more than 80 years later that they were first inflicted with sectarian management, largely as a result of the Catholic Church boycotting them.

This is part of an even bigger historical scandal. An underlying reason that the Catholic Church boycotted the Model Schools was that these schools were the basis of teacher training for National Schools, and the Catholic Church wanted to gain sectarian control of the training of teachers for the Irish education system. As we know, the Catholic Church eventually succeeded in doing this.

Richard Bruton did not write this misleading answer, and he should question whoever is providing him with replies to such questions. The statement is from the middle of a previous reply to a related question in 2015 by the previous Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan. Atheist Ireland previously reported on that earlier statement in 2015.

Minister Bruton should correct this misleading statement in the Dail. He should give a more complete description of how the nine Model Schools began with a non-denominational ethos, then changed to have a sectarian denominational ethos. As Patron of these schools, the Minister should also commit to changing the denominational ethos of these schools back to the non-denominational ethos under which they were first established.

The current Government’s stated policy is to introduce more non-denominational schools. In practice, this is not happening, and the blame is being put on resistance from Patron bodies. But the Model Schools provide a perfect opportunity to make a start on this policy, without having to convince any Patron body of its merits, because the Minister is the Patron. He should do this immediately.

Model schools established as non-denominational

The Department of Education website states that:

“Although originally established as non-denominational schools, in practice these schools have evolved to provide primary education within a Christian ethos.”

The websites of two existing Model Schools confirm this.

The Kilkenny Model School website says that models schools were different because:

“The Local Community and Churches had no say in the running of the school.”

The Athy Model school website says:

“Therefore the concept of the ‘model school’ was set up as non-denominational national schools.”

So despite these schools being established as non-denominational, and despite our Constitution forbidding discrimination between religions, the Minister as Patron to these nine schools continues to discriminate on religious grounds.

How did the change to denominational ethos happen?

In the 2008 book Teacher Education in the English Speaking World, edited by Tom O’Donoghue and Clive Whitehead, the original ethos of the Irish Model Schools is described as follows:

“The objectives of the model schools were to ‘to promote the united education of Protestants and Roman Catholics in Common Schools, to exhibit the best examples of National Schools; and to give a preparatory training to young teachers.’ Among the areas of instructions covered were the art of teaching, composition and English literature, natural history, mathematics and mental philosophy.

However, the non-denominational status of the schools proved contentious and the Catholic Hierarchy, opposed to the system from the outset, issued a directive in 1863 that all Catholic children were to be withdrawn from model schools and that teachers trained within the model school system were not to be employed in national schools under Catholic management.”

A Hundred Years of Teaching 1916-2016, a discussion paper to the INTO Education Conference in Tullamore in 2016, says:

“The growth of the District Model Schools from 1843 which served as non-denominational, mixed-gender training colleges, was a source of deep-seated concern to the Catholic Church. By the late 19th century, a ban on attending Model School training colleges was imposed by the Catholic Church as the Church favoured no training for teachers as opposed to non-denominational training.”

The eventual solution adopted by the Irish government, to facilitate this blackmail by the Catholic Church, seems to have been to appoint members of the clergy as managers or co-managers of the Model Schools while maintaining the schools in State ownership.

But this typical Irish nod-and-wink surrender to sectarianism did not begin to happen until the 1930s, a century after the Stanley letter was written, and more than eighty years after the Model Schools were established as non-denominational schools.

Why did the Catholic Church boycott the Model Schools?

As well as the non-denominational curriculum, the Catholic Church had an underlying objection to the Model Schools. It was the fact that the Model Schools were the basis of teacher training for National Schools. To counter this, the Catholic Church employed a three-pronged strategy.

Firstly, the Catholic Church banned Catholic students from attending the Model Schools. This undermined the ability of the Model Schools to provide teachers for the National School system.

Secondly, schools managed by the Catholic Church refused to employ teachers who were trained in the Model Schools. This undermined the value of being trained in a Model School, and the reason for the State running Model Schools.

Thirdly, because of the employment boycott, schools managed by the Catholic Church had to employ teachers who did not have formal State training. This, combined with the boycott of Catholics attending the Model Schools to be trained, enabled the Catholic Church to lobby for sectarian denominational-controlled teacher training institutions.

Ultimately the Catholic Church succeeded in this aim. Denominational training colleges were established after the Powis Commission report in 1870. In practice, this was more fundamental to Catholic control of Irish education than was the curriculum being taught to students in the small number of Model schools.

The Model School system had not been perfect. The original plan had been to have a Model School in each County. It was a costly way of training teachers. There were school fees (nominal for poorer families) in order to pay the best teachers to work in the Model Schools. But it was a genuine attempt to create a better education system, and one with an inclusive non-denominational ethos.

From about 1883 onwards, the Model Schools in effect became normal schools but run directly by the State. But the Catholic Church still continued to push for sectarian influence in running them, particularly after 1922 when the new Irish Free State was founded and the Department of Education took over the functions of the old National Education Board.

Today there are nine Model Schools of which the Minister for Education is Patron. Five of these schools have a Catholic ethos, and four have a Protestant ethos. Despite being run directly by the State, these schools discriminate on the ground of religion against atheist, secular, and minority faith families. This has to change.

Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools

In 2012, the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools published A Guide to Patronage and Trusteeship of Catholic Schools in Ireland. In this they wrote:

“2.12 Another major bone of contention for Catholics was the establishment of Model schools by the National Board in various towns around the country. These Model schools of which twenty six were established between 1848 and 1863 contained boarding facilities for pupil teachers and were conducted strictly in accordance with the mixed denominational principle. In 1863 a ban was imposed by the Catholic Church authorities on the attendance by Catholics at Model schools. Teachers trained in the Model schools were not to be employed in schools under Catholic patronage.”

“2.14 The Powis Commission report was submitted to the government in May 1870. The Report indicated that 77% of the school houses in Ireland were non-vested and that only 34% of the teaching force had received formal training. This latter figure reflects the low level of attendance on the part of Catholics at the Model schools. Among the recommendations of importance from a Catholic perspective were:
* that, apart from Marlborough Street, the Model schools be phased out
* that training schools for teachers should be given to the control of religious bodies, under certain conditions.”

“2.16 When the Catholic bishops met in synod in 1900 they accepted that considerable progress had been made as the ‘system of National education… is now in fact, whatever it is in name, as denominational almost as we could desire’, but they expressed reservations about two particular areas – the restrictions on the use of religious emblems in classrooms and the continued existence of the Model schools. While some Catholics continued to attend Model schools, they had effectively become denominational schools for Protestants.

“2.19 The Catholic bishops at their synod in Maynooth in 1927 commented favourably on the new national school system. Reference was made to the fact that the schools were still de jure neutral or non-denominational and concern was expressed that the management of the Model schools which were still in existence did not have any clerical involvement. The solution adopted by the government so that Catholic children could attend the Model schools was to appoint members of the clergy as managers or co-managers while maintaining the schools in state ownership.”

So the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools accepts that the Model Schools were established as non-denominational, and that this only changed at some time after 1927.

Dail debates 1931

In 1931, the Minister for Education was asked a question about the hiring of a temporary principal in Glasnevin Model School. The vacancy was not advertised in the press. The Minister for Education told the Dail that:

“The usual procedure was not followed in this case as the Department was desirous of availing itself of the services of a teacher who, apart from conducting his school work in a highly satisfactory manner, had been particularly successful in developing the musical side of Irish education both inside and outside his school.”

So in this Model school, in 1931, the hiring of the principal was made on the basis of what the Department of Education wanted, not on the basis of what any religious denomination wanted.

Also in 1931, the Minister for Education was asked in the Dail about the hiring of staff in Model schools. The Minister replied:

“As to Model schools and the method of appointment, Model schools are like other schools in some respects. If there is a vacancy the appointment rests with the Department. In every case I take what I consider to be the best advice as to the best man to appoint and I appoint him. I can take one kind of advice on one occasion and another kind on another, but it will satisfy Deputies to learn that I hope to get rid of that particular patronage as quickly as possible, and I shall certainly equate them as quickly as I can to appointments in other schools, and have that particular amount of unity so far as they are concerned. It may be necessary to have a certain system of joint management at the beginning, but the real appointment will be largely in the hands of the manager, like any other school.”

So in 1931, the Minister for Education was talking about changing the system of appointment whereby the Department made the decision. Clearly at this stage, the schools were not under denominational control.

Summary

Last week Minister for Education Richard Bruton answered a question from Ruth Coppinger TD about the status of religious instruction in schools in which he or a public body is the patron. Minister Bruton’s answer began:

“As Minister for Education and Skills, in accordance with the Education Act 1998, I am currently the Patron of the nine model schools. The nine model schools operate as denominational Catholic or Protestant schools in accordance with the historic traditions that go back to their foundation and the community to be served at the time they were established.”

The Minister should correct this misleading statement in the Dail. He should give a more complete description of how the nine Model Schools began with a non-denominational ethos, then changed to have a sectarian denominational ethos. As Patron of these schools, the Minister should also commit to changing the denominational ethos of these schools back to the non-denominational ethos under which they were first established.

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