‘The politics of Irish education – What’s next?’
Jonathan Tiernan, Education Delegate of the Irish Jesuit Province, gave a keynote talk at the recent Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) AGM in Limerick on Monday 24 April 2023. The AGM, attended by over 200 people, is a representative gathering of Principals and Chairpersons of Boards of Management from Irish Catholic primary schools. Jonathan’s talk entitled, ‘The Politics of Irish Education – What’s Next?’ drew heavily from his book The Politics of Irish Primary Education », co-authored with Dr Sean McGraw, and published a year ago this month.
In his talk Jonathan highlighted some of the notable policy changes that have taken place in Irish primary education in recent times in the areas of Curriculum, Admissions and Divestment. He set out the key factors that influence when policy change happens both in education, as well as more broadly in the political sphere. In this regard he drew on the outcomes of the Constitutional changes on Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage referenda to highlight what the learnings might be in relation to educational policy change.
The overarching theme of his presentation was that change in primary education, as in all things, is inevitable. The strategic question for those leading Catholic schools is: Are we to be proactive or reactive in relation to these changes? He gave the example of divestment, the transfer of some primary schools from Catholic patronage to multi-denominational patronage. While there is a general acceptance that this change needs to happen to some degree, what change there has been to date has been minimal. Therefore, policy makers and civil society actors often seek different ways to affect change that are less obvious but potentially more impactful. The upcoming reduction from 2.5 hours of Religious Education to 2 hours at primary level is one such example of a policy driven change that seeks to avoid the more divisive divestment issue.
Jonathan pointed out that as change continues to happen – impacting the ability of Catholic schools to live out their characteristic spirit – the question arises as to who in the Catholic Church is taking responsibility for thinking and acting strategically on these matters. He posed the question to attendees, “Who is waking up every morning with the responsibility to think about these issues?”
According to Jonathan, for too long the Catholic Church was a policy maker when it came to social matters in Ireland. Now however, in education as in other areas the Church has become a policy taker, with little ability to influence what is happening at a policy level in its schools. What Jonathan advocated for in his talk was a move towards those in Catholic Education becoming policy shapers. If this is to happen organisations like the CPSMA will be central in playing a role in informing future policy changes in education.