by JOHN HORGAN
THE normally placid surface of Irish education has never been quite the same since the late Donogh O'Malley stirred it up so vigorously during his short term of office as Minister of Education. Today, just a year after his death, the ferment continues. and more fundamental questions than ever before are being asked.
On the answers they receive will depend the shape of the Irish educational system for several decades. And the role of the Church in this system is one of the key issues being discussed in an atmosphere of visibly increasing tension.
The tension is one between two great needs—the need to plan the country's educational system in a reasonably efficient and above all fair manner, and the need to ensure that the essentially human element in the educative process is not swamped by statistical and administrative obscurantism.
The Church sees itself as the defendant of human rights in education, without denying the right and duty of the Department of Education to plan for the future on a nation-wide
basis. The Department of Education sees its role as that of a co-ordinator and initiator of educational policies closely linked with the development of the country as a whole, but goes to some lengths to stress the value of the Church's contribution in the past and to express the hope that the previous fruitful relationship will be continued.
Where, then, does the conflict arise? For conflict there is, even though it may be disguised by relatively mild statements of position and intent on either side. If the situation described above were the real situation, there would be no difficulty.
In fact, however, it represents only an ideal—and an ideal which is so vague as to be of very little help in solving the concrete problems involved in providing enough education of the right kind for a rapidly expanding school population.
Number of disputes
The situation is bedevilled by a considerable number of disputes, some of them educational in origin, others .not. There is something of a parallel here with the ecumenical movement, in which we are being taught to differentiate between the theological and non-theological difficulties in the way of Christian unity.
In Irish education, there are non-educational as well as educational issues which divide the two agencies—Church and State—both of which claim to have the welfare of the educational system and its effectiveness as an instrument of human development at heart. (There are, of course, wider issues involving the Churches and Irish education, and higher education, but a short article must of necessity be confined to the most obvious problems.)
The first area of interest is primary education. where the managerial system — under which the local parish priest manages a school largely paid for by the State—has remained unchanged for over a century. It was originally a compromise solution to a difficult problem and today, in spite of an unwillingness to question its value at an official level, there is clearly need for change. The trouble is that it is far from easy to say exactly what changes should take place.
Here the two main problems are easily delineated. In the first place there is the plain fact that many clerical managers fail to pay sufficient atten the facilities currently available at the post-primary level, and of the curricula being taught in the schools.
On the side of the Church, however, there is the suspicion that the Government, in so doing, is taking into its hands powers which infringe constitutionally-guaranteed rights to private property—rights about which the clerical owners of over 90 per cent. of the country's secondary, i.e., academic, schools feel understandably concerned.
Their concern is reinforced by (and this is, if you like, a non-educational aspect of the problem) the Department's success in reaping widespread . public approval for a "free education" scheme, in which it pays the school fees of many pupils up to a certain level, and for a "building grants" scheme designed to meet part of the capital costs usually borne by the religious orders. Both schemes have. from the schools' point of view. almost as many drawbacks as advantages,
The Department's main blueprint for change in this area is the report of the group of economists and others who, with the support of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and of the Irish Government itself, studied Irish education from the point of view of its relationship to the economic development of the country as a whole.
It was positively reticent in so far as recommendations are concerned, making only one or two, but the statistics it amassed, with their implications of massive wastage within the system, galvanised the Government into action.
In the past couple of years they have embarked on wideranging plans for rationalisation of secondary education in general, and it is certain that this will mean some of the existing (private) secondary schools losing some of their pupils as partial amalgamation with technical (i.e., State-controlled) schools takes place on a local level.
This is the situation which has prompted the secondary school managers' association to ask, in noticeably strong terms, for an act of the Oireacha is (Parliament) to protect their rights in the existing schools— a demand which the new Minister for Education, Mr. Brian Lenihan, does not think is justified in view of the good relations which have informed Church-State relations in education in the past.
It is further complicated by action at present being taken by Irish secondary teachers in support of a wage claim. The hidden nine-tenths of this particular iceberg include the fact that the teachers appear to have shelved their differences of opinion with their managers about promotion prospects, a difference which is similar in kind to that experienced by national teachers.
The managers are supporting the teachers in their pay claim, and it may well be that, in some kind of a quid pro quo relationship, the teachers will 'support the managers in their demand for an Act to protect their rights.
They are unlikely to have any markedly strong feelings about the matter, but a general anti-Departmental feeling has been fuelled in the recent past by a very genuine fear that the administrators, few of whom have a great deal of experience in education proper, are going over the heads of the teachers in what most directly concerns them—course content and examinations — in an all out attempt to solve Ireland's educational problems once and for all.
These fears about the Department are to a certain extent justified. It is only comparatively recently that it has developed from a channel for distributing Government money to the schools into an innovator in the field of educational policy. Many of its initiatives are ham-fisted, some are arguably wrong, and there is every evidence that decisions are being taken by a very small group of men who, whatever their abilities, are working under exhausting pressures.
But there is another danger, just as real, that the Church, and to a lesser extent the secondary teachers, by opposing the policy of the Department which has attracted most public attention in the past two years (and, for instance, increased the numbers in postprimary education by some 10 per cent. over the same period), should be seen to be standing in the path of educational reform designed to remove the middle-class basis on which, for various reasons, the system has been built up to now.
If this happens, they run the risk of forfeiting the support of the people as a whole. There are even signs that they may already be doing so.