Opening Presentation to
The Education Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly
by Cardinal Seán Brady

Mr Chairman,

On behalf of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education I would like to thank the members of the Education Committee for their invitation to discuss our submission on the draft Education Bill. We are very happy to do so.

The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education speaks for the Trustees of the entire family of Catholic schools. That network consists of some 550 nursery, primary and post-primary maintained and voluntary grammar schools in Northern Ireland. I am joined this morning by some of the members of our Commission: Bishop Patrick Walsh, former Bishop of Down & Connor, Sister Eithne Woulfe, a sister of the Order of St Louis, a Religious Order with schools across Ireland including in Kilkeel and Ballymena, and Bishop Donal McKeown, Chair of the Commission. We are also joined by Mr John Gordon, legal advisor to the Commission.

We are very happy to answer any questions you might have regarding our written submission to the Committee.

Before addressing that submission however, let me say how conscious I am that we meet in the aftermath of the brutal murders of Constable Stephen Carroll and Sappers Cengiz Azimkar and Mark Quinsey. I consider that these crimes were an attack on the whole community. They were an attack on the democratic will of people across this island and on their overwhelming support for the very institution in which we are gathered this morning. I am mindful therefore that we are engaging with you today as the democratically elected members of this Legislative Assembly. We are engaging in the privileged context of democracy, a privilege we can never take for granted. We do so with great respect for you and for your role as politicians. I am mindful too of our shared duty as elected and civic leaders to do all we can to consolidate progress already made towards a more secure, confident and reconciled future for everyone in our society, not least the young.

As the Trustees of Catholic schools we are fully committed to playing our part in building a more peaceful future for all in our society. As we said in our publication Building Peace: Shaping the Future, ‘Our society in Northern Ireland has been characterised by profound conflict and those charged with the education of our young people have an important role to play in breaking down barriers of ignorance, misunderstanding and suspicion. Our Schools cannot carry the full responsibility of reconciliation alone. However, we recognise that they have an important role to play.’

We also went on to say that tolerance and respect for difference is at the heart of all Christian and human education. And this brings me directly to our submission on the draft Bill.

Respect for diversity is one of the key values underpinning our submission on the draft Education Bill. We see respect for diversity as part of the contribution which Catholic Schools makes to our society. We also see respect for such diversity as part of the obligation of society to Catholic and indeed to other schools.

In Britain, in the Republic of Ireland, and in many other parts of the world the provision of publicly funded faith based schools, or other schools founded on a particular philosophical, cultural or linguistic ethos, is accepted as a normal part of society. I would hold that the provision of a diverse range of different schools is the mark of a mature, tolerant and reconciled society. And since this is, I believe, the type of society we aspire to in Northern Ireland, then it follows that we should provide for a variety of schools based on available resources from which parents may chose.

This principle of diverse provision is also recognised and protected in a number of international instruments on human rights. Notably, Protocol 1, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights upholds the right of parents to have their children educated in a manner consistent with their religious and philosophical convictions.

As Trustees of Catholic Schools we have a duty to strive to ensure that this right of parents is adequately respected and provided for in the new Education Bill. As the current draft of the Bill stands, we remain unclear as to how certain key aspects of the proposed legislation will operate. We therefore have significant reservations about our ability to support key aspects of the Bill in its current form. It may be that the Committee will be able to address these concerns.

Before outlining some of these concerns, let me state very clearly that any right we seek to have respected, or any provision or resource we seek for Catholic schools we seek for each and every provider of education in Northern Ireland. We therefore support those elected representatives and others who uphold the principle of equality in education policy and provision in Northern Ireland.

In doing so we are conscious that some people may have the impression that the Catholic sector is somehow advantaged over other sectors in Northern Ireland. This is historically incorrect. As a matter of fact until relatively recently, the Catholic sector received less support from the State than any other sector.

It is true however that when other sectors transferred their ownership of schools to the State, the Catholic Community maintained ownership. This took place at considerable financial cost to the Catholic community and to our Catholic parishes in particular. However, this was a cost which generations of Catholics were willing to bear to guarantee the ethos of their schools and the right of parents to have such schools. As the Trustees of Catholic schools in Northern Ireland, responsibility for ensuring the continuation of that right now falls to us. It is a right which we will strive uphold in all circumstances.

However, one thing is becoming increasingly clear to us as Trustees. One of the consequences of the decision of the Transferors to hand their schools over to the State is that a situation exists today in which many parents from other Christian traditions, as well as from other cultural, ethnic or linguistic backgrounds, believe their rights to have schools with a particular ethos is not adequately provided for. On behalf of the Catholic Trustees, I want to make it clear that we would lend our wholehearted support to any legislative or policy change which would facilitate this right of parents from other religious, cultural, linguistic or ethnic backgrounds to be more adequately addressed.

To ensure adequate provision for parents who chose a Catholic education for their children, we have highlighted in our submission a number of key issues which need to be further clarified or addressed in the proposed Education Bill.

Critically, these include the following three areas. We are happy to elaborate further on these during the questions:

•    First, there is a need to clarify the role of the ESA as the ‘Employer’ and/or ‘Employing Authority’. The proposal in Clause 3 of the Bill that the ESA will be the employer of all staff in all schools is unacceptable. This is a fundamental impediment to the ability of owners/ Trustees to exercise their right and duty to promote and safeguard the ethos and defining character of a school. To exercise our duties as Trustees adequately we require that the Board of Governors of each school shall be the legal employer of all staff in the school. As it stands, the proposal in the draft Bill appears to run counter to the principle, which we support, of giving maximised autonomy to schools.  We suggest that further clarification is needed in respect of Clause 8.

•    We accept that the functions of each sectoral support body will be as agreed between DE and the owners/ Trustees as stated in Policy Paper 21. The functions of a sectoral support body will be complimentary and will not duplicate or overlap with the functions of the ESA. This should be reflected in the proposed legislation. The business plan submitted by the Catholic Trustees addresses any fears among members of the Committee about the proposed scale of such a body for the Catholic sector or indeed for any other sector. We are not trying to create a new CCMS! What we need however is adequate support to enable the discharge of functions which properly belong to owners/ Trustees. This will also avoid the necessity of the ESA having to effectively negotiate key decisions with every individual school in a given sector. These support bodies make sense in terms of value for money and good administration. They have already been shown to provide a key role in raising standards. Policy and/ or legislation provision needs to be made for their role in supporting schools in the appointment of teachers, particularly at leadership level, their role on behalf of school owners in the planning and provision of schools, their advocacy role on behalf of a given sector and their role in supporting and developing ethos.

Similarly, there is no point in having such support bodies if they can be ignored by the schools in that sector. It is therefore critical that legislation provides for a duty on Boards of Governors to co-operate with the support body in their respective sector.

•    Finally, maximised autonomy and ensuring the ethos of a school require strong and committed Boards of Governors. Clarification is required in regard to the appointment of community governors. It is essential that legislation reflects the importance of such appointments being made ‘in consultation with’ owners and Trustees.

This is a short overview of the main issues we would like to bring to the attention of the Education Committee. I thank you again for giving us the opportunity to explain these issues to you directly and we are now happy to take any questions.