ALTHOUGH the Coalition’s erstwhile Education Minister Ho Chi Quinn resigned last year, his legacy continues to live after him, curiously risking being catalogued as Labour’s 21st century version of the Penal Laws!
An exponent of the Coalition’s bizarre anti-Catholic sentiments, Quinn bit the dust when he attempted to wrest hundreds of primary schools from the Church’s influence and hand them over to State-appointed bodies.
His onetime comrade in arms, Colm Keaveney TD, a former Labour Party chairman, put it well when he described the then Minister’s proposal as a wholesale re-ordering of the primary sector’s education system. And, while the general public and Keaveney at first welcomed Quinn’s promise of reform, attitudes shifted as the penny dropped that the ideology underpinning his education crusade was driven by a personal whim and by groups espousing a far-out secular fundamentalism.
From the beginning, he alienated support with his warning to school principals that they should divert the time allocated to teaching religion towards subjects such as English and Maths. This was perceived as an attack on the Christian ethos of most schools and it led to a torrent of criticism from parents.
Even Labour politicos took slices off Quinn for being ‘misguided,’ ‘gaffe-prone’ and for having a narrow-minded focus on the role of religion in national schools.
Then, whether intentionally or otherwise, Educate Together – the organisation that the minister hoped would provide an alternative national school structure to that of the churches – got in on the act. It announced that children from the tender age of four would receive instruction in atheism, agnosticism and humanism in their schools.
The impact on the public was that of utter astonishment; indeed a sense of shock greeted the news that a form of globalised atheism – conspicuous for its pro-capitalist preferences and attachment to mercenary values – should be used to brainwash small children.
What’s more, another outfit called Atheist Ireland drew the attention of parents to the fact that the current primary school curriculum contained no segment covering ‘atheism and its celebrations.’ To remedy the situation, the outfit promised to develop the syllabus for the multi-denominational school provider Educate Together. Not even Fr Ted could match that!
A bemused Belfast Telegraph observed that strange things were afoot in Ireland and that teaching atheism to 16,000 small children certainly was ground-breaking. ‘This offers the potential for atheism to become a real influence upon the intellectual development of entire generations of young Irish people,’ crowed the Unionist-leaning paper with a perfectly straight face.
The Telegraph’s readers would have been even more amused had they realised that one of Quinn’s first actions on becoming Education Minister was to establish a thing called the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. Its aim was to offer ‘a greater educational choice’ that would ‘reflect a greater diversity of people in a more pluralist, inclusive society.’
A radical plan?
Behind the pretentious jargon lay Quinn’s radical plan for primary education: the transfer of schools (with the expected approval of the churches) to patrons, such as Educate Together or whatever secular dream-team popped up in the meantime. The intention, however, was quite clear: to snatch half of the country’s 3,100 primary schools.
All of this took place in the absence of any serious public debate or involvement of local communities, although the usual suspects in the Sindo/Indo, Irish Times and social media – a highly-motivated minority – lent Quinn a useful hand.
Surprising too was the advice that came from the Forum thing. Its chairman, Prof John Coolahan, proposed that the best way to introduce an alternative school patronage system was for the Department of Education to wield a ‘stick’ against the Catholic Church if it wanted to make progress on the divestment of schools. ‘Cuts in school funding might be considered to concentrate minds,’ he suggested.
Only two Catholic schools merged to create a vacant property for Educate Together, and one Church of Ireland school was transferred to the same organisation. Educate Together in total controls 45 schools – including one in Britain – but no voluntary ‘divestment’ took place in the way that Quinn envisaged.
John Murray of Mater Dei Institute dismissed the preposterous ‘stick’ recommendation on the grounds that a substantial number of parents, pupils and teachers were very happy with the current school system and were most reluctant to see it transformed into something else. ‘What was originally presented as a high demand for change was not actually accurate,’ he said.
And then Fr Brendan Hoban, a leading figure in Catholic education, stepped in. He declared that the majority of parents wanted the present system of patronage retained. In unambiguous terms, he told The Irish Times that the real demand was not for secular schools but for school places, and that providing adequate places was the responsibility of the State, not of the Catholic Church.
He explained the reason why the Catholic Church had not handed over any functioning primary school to Educate Together. It was because parents wanted to keep their schools as they were.
Fr Hoban said this of Quinn’s ‘divestment’ policy: ‘experience from parishes was that after spending money buying sites, building schools and fundraising to develop facilities, parishes had no intention of handing over their local school to anyone.’
He also rejected the notion that there was a huge demand for a secular school system, pointing out that ‘support for secular schools ran at between 1 per cent in rural and 8 per cent in urban areas.’
And, he added: ‘Atheist Ireland should build their own schools, propose their own curriculum, fundraise, and all the rest of it. The presumption in media circles is for the Catholic Church to do the bidding of Atheist Ireland.’ Nor did he believe that Irish parents were waiting ‘with bated breath for a religion-less, spirituality-neutral system of education’.
Ex-Labour man Colm Keaveney took a more nuanced approach. He argued that an area might have a sufficient number of families who would support a non-Catholic ethos school. ‘Those families needed to be accommodated in their wishes,’ he said. How to do so was the problem.
He regretted that Fine Gael and Labour’s intransigence and hostility put the kybosh on any compromise that might have been possible between the Catholic Church and Minister Quinn, and he was disappointed at the way extremist demands for a wholesale secular re-structuring of the education system came to the fore in the absence of a give-and-take agreement.
For Quinn the game was up when he realised he had underestimated the close solidarity that still exists between the churches and their communities.
The Education Minister who set the secularist cat among the pigeons had flopped –miserably. And primary education was to remain Christian.