How can we prevent segregation in our schools
Policymakers have a responsibility to plan for all children. They could learn from Finland
Children at play in St John the Evangelist National School, Adamstown, Co Dublin. More than 90% of pupils in the school in the 2013- 14 school year were of immigrant origin. Photograph: The Irish Times
By Joe Humphreys, The Irish Times Education Correspondent
Imagine a place where there were no private schools, no waiting lists, no demands for baptism certs; a place where all children – irrespective of faith or ethnicity – went to their local school.
Such a place exists. It’s called Finland. But such a place once existed here too. In the 19th century and early 20th century, Ireland had a system of national schools which were explicitly non-denominational. The display of religious emblems in school hours was prohibited and children had a right to opt out of religious ceremonies. Poverty was a barrier but, in theory, national schools educated all children together.
• This changed when, post-independence, the Catholic Church began to shape the State’s institutions to its liking. The emergence of denominational schools at primary level
Today new forms of segregation are emerging. Some are religious but more worrying perhaps is the ethnic segregation highlighted in an analysis this week by Pamela Duncan of the Irish Times Data team.
This shows that 23 per cent of primary schools cater for four in five immigrant children. In 20 schools, more than two-thirds of pupils were from a non-Irish background.
This caused little surprise among educational experts, many of whom had pointed out that plans by successive governments to create “diversity of patronage” would only deepen segregation.
The primary teachers union the INTO has long advocated the development of Community National Schools as the norm. Only a handful of such schools have opened since 2008 and they – along with Educate Together schools – have been found to be the most inclusive of immigrant children and other minorities.
In contrast, Gaelscoileanna have the lowest intake of both immigrant children and pupils with special educational needs – an apparent consequence of their status as middle-class schools.
The debate shouldn’t pit one patron against another, or be turned into a means of criticising parents looking for that extra “edge” for their child.
However, policymakers have a responsibility to plan for all children. They could take some lessons from the Finns.
The debate will continue at the Labour party conference this weekend where a motion has been tabled urging Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan to reverse plans for creating more diversity of patronage.
First published: Sat, Feb 28, 2015, 01:00