Brehon & Gleneagle Hotels
Killarney, Co. Kerry
Saturday 2nd February 2008
Cardinal Seán Brady
A Uachtaráin na hÉireann, Minister Hanafin, distinguished representatives and guests of the Irish Primary Principals Network.
Let me begin by thanking your President, Larry Fleming for his generous introduction. I am very honoured by the invitation to be here. I thank your Director Seán Cottrell for his impeccable efficiency. It has kept me so well informed in the run- up to this important event. I commend all those who are involved in organising this Conference. This is a hugely impressive programme of speakers, expos and displays. Truly the IPPN Conference is a worthy celebration of all that is best in the Irish education. Your generous and professional leadership continues to inspire and direct our Irish School system at Primary level. It is not possible to exaggerate the critical role you and the teachers in your schools play in the life of our young people and ultimately in the religious, social, moral and economic formation of our nation.
That we are celebrating all of this in the beautiful kingdom of Kerry, of course, is an added bonus!
I am also particularly pleased to have this opportunity to pay tribute to you. Today I thank the countless generations of teachers – principals and assistants – who down through the years have helped parents discharge their sacred obligation to educate their children. Perhaps it is timely to underline the fact that teachers and schools help parents in educating their children. The relationship should be, at all times, one of co-operation not confrontation.
I once heard it said that we learn:
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we both hear and see
70% of what is discussed
and 80% of what we experience personally.
This was brought home to me recently. Among the letters I received congratulating me on my appointment as a Cardinal, there was one from a pupil I taught in St. Patrick’s College Cavan over thirty years ago. We had not met since. But in his very thoughtful note he reminded me that in school I had once defended him when others were speaking of him in more negative or pessimistic terms. I had no recollection of the event. But I was reminded again of that great maxim of teaching: ‘If you are lucky, children will remember 10% of what you taught them. But they will always remember the type of person you were!’ ‘
I am sure many others of my past pupils would have less inspiring stories to tell, not least those I tried to shape according to my dreams of a future All-Ireland winning Cavan team on the football field. For a teacher in Kerry those ambitions would have been a little more realistic!
There is a weight that bears on every teacher’s shoulders. You are the artisans of the hopes and dreams of future generations. It is humbling and always timely to be reminded of this fact that those generations will remember us for how we treated them and what they experienced of us personally, more than for the facts or formulae we taught them.
This is why there is no more rewarding vocation than teaching the young, whether as a parent or a teacher. There is nothing more rewarding than knowing that something you said or did or taught continues to be valued by someone today, continues to shape their life and bring their life some added quality and meaning.
This is also why the greatest danger for any Government, Board of Management, Principal or teacher, is to forget that education is about more than communicating information. It is not confined to preparing children to contribute to the economy or securing qualifications. Yes, education is all of these things, but the ultimate function of education and schools is something else. Its aim is to support parents in the formation of the ‘whole person’ that is the gift and mystery of every child.
When we lose sight of this responsibility to the ‘whole person’ we can so easily become lost. Lost in a functional, administrative or even utilitarian approach to what we do. This can happen at the level of education policy, the management of the school or in the classroom. It is so easy, not least in the current environment of ‘money counts for everything’ and ‘science is the only knowledge worth knowing’, to lose sight of the magic and mystery – even the fun and satisfaction of teaching and educating the young.
I believe that as Principals this challenge has become particularly acute for you. Even in my ten years as President of the Bishops Conference I have become aware of the ever increasing pressures that are bearing upon those who lead and manage our schools.
As Principal teachers you are chosen precisely because you are among the most imaginative and visionary, highly motivated and pupil-centred teachers we have. You are innovators and inspirers, people who have proved yourselves capable and creative in the classroom.
Yet if my experience of visiting schools is anything to go by, I suspect that many of you are feeling increasingly isolated. You may feel disconnected from that which energises you most. The work of inspiring and forming the mystery of every child: the challenge of creating a warm, effective learning community in the school, while supporting and encouraging parents in their sacred duty to educate their child can be daunting at times.
This should be a matter of concern to us all, especially those with responsibility for resources and policy.
As Principals you are seen as the vision setters, staff developers, Chief Executives and that is fair enough. You expect all of this in a sense when you apply to become a Principal. But what happens when you are also expected to be the quantity surveyor, the legal consultant, the financial director, the personnel officer, the strategic planner and a wise counsellor and supporter to all of your staff, pupils and even to the local community.
By any standards this is a huge burden to bear. That so many of you bear it with such effectiveness and skill is a tribute to your personal resources and commitment.
As the title of your Conference suggests these internal pressures are added to by the rapidly changing external environment in which we all live and work,. The school is not isolated from societal change. In many respects it is the first point at which so many of these changes converge and are experienced.
In Ireland today there are many positive aspects to this change for which I think we should be grateful. These include:
• Growing prosperity in our society;
• Greater opportunities to travel, to experience other cultures and peoples;
• Higher levels of opportunity and choice, not least in education and training;
• Immigration on a scale never seen before resulting in greater cultural diversity;
• Improvement in communications technology opening up whole fields of information, learning and experience for teachers and children which could not have been dreamt of even ten years ago.
All of these changes are potentially very positive and enriching for our society. However there are also potential downsides which we need to be aware of. These include the:
• Increase in materialism and consumerist attitudes in our society;
• Growing secularisation of society, even at times a hostility to religion;
• Evidence of a growing culture of aggression, not least in young people;
• Less respect for institutions in general and for traditional sources of social and moral authority;
• Greater strain on parents because of the necessity for both to work;
• Increasing problems in families due to many factors – absence of parents, abuse of alcohol, drugs, single parent families etc.
• Increasing challenges to the rights of parents to have faith based schools;
• Less coherence between home, parish and school;
The impact of this new context can be seen in some of the statistics relating to the percentage of Catholics in the population and the percentage of the school-going population attending Catholic schools.
The percentage of Catholics in the population is 86.8%. The percentage of Catholics attending Mass once a week or more is 61.6%. Yet the number of schools in the country which are Catholic is 91.8% and the percentage of pupils attending Catholic Schools 94.8%.
This would suggest that in our new context a disproportionate part of educational provision is being shouldered by the Catholic community. However, it should also be said that many who have only a very nominal affiliation to the Church still want their children in Catholic schools. The reason is simple, they feel they will get a good education there. Similarly, many parents of other religions are happier to have their children in Catholic schools than in non-faith based schools.
This is a situation of which the Bishops and Religious Trustees of Catholic Schools are acutely aware. This brings me to another issue that looms large in education today and which runs through the theme of your Conference: How should the Irish education system respond to the increasing pluralism in our society?
In our recent publication, ‘Catholic Primary Schools, A Policy Provision into the Future’, the Irish Bishops’ Conference set out its response to this and related questions. One of the key points we made is this ‘the Catholic Church accepts there should be choice and diversity within a national education system, so it believes that parents who desire schools under different patronage should, where possible, be facilitated in accessing them.’ We also said that where ‘circumstances may have changed and an existing Catholic school may no longer be viable as a Catholic school…. an evaluation will have to be made, in consultation with parents and teachers, about the future of such a school’.
I think it should be said, because it is not said often enough, that Catholic schools and schools in general throughout Ireland have done a magnificent job in supporting the integration of new individuals and groups from diverse national, religious and ethnic backgrounds into local communities across the country. Our schools have often taken the lead and set the standard for the rest of our society in terms of welcome, tolerance and integration. That is in no small part due to you the Principals of our schools. It is due in no small part to the Christian ethos which already pervades our Catholic and other denominational schools and which is deeply valued by so many parents.
This is why I admit to no small frustration when I hear the superficial allegation made that faith based schools are of their very nature divisive and inconsistent with a pluralist society. We are seeing here more a rejection of religion, or a caricature of religion than with education per se. When set against the evidence, whether here or in Northern Ireland, the charge that Catholic or other faith based schools are intrinsically divisive and inconsistent with pluralism, is an ill-informed caricature which simply doesn’t stack up. In fact, it is unjust and offensive to the excellent work and commitment of teachers and others who work in Catholic and other Christian schools. No school can ever become complacent about its Christian and civic obligation to promote tolerance, inclusion and understanding as one of its first priorities. We should even be creative in exploring ways in which we can promote greater cooperation and sharing between all our schools, including different denominational, faith or other forms of school.
There is a lot of competition between schools. It is found in both its open and in its more subtle forms. This includes social advantage. In reality, this can be a more potent source of social or psychological division between children and parents in a local community than anything to do with religion.
Our fundamental concern should be different; the provision of schools in every sector which are inclusive, cooperating, socially engaged and making an active contribution to the cohesion of the local community. I believe these are the qualities which people from every background in our society want to see and will be anxious to support.
For my part, I make no apology for defending the right of Catholic parents and others, a right recognised in our Constitution and in international instrument of human rights, to ensure such education and teaching for their children as is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. I defend the right of the Church, in a free society, to spread the Gospel of freedom, justice and love to parents and to children who in turn freely assent to be members of the Catholic community. I defend the right of the Catholic Church to create communities of faith around that intrinsic bond between families, parish and the Catholic school. I unapologetically call on Catholic parents to support their Catholic schools as an inseparable part of their baptismal call to bring their children up in the atmosphere and ethos of the Catholic community, rooted in the Gospel of justice, truth, tolerance and love.
None of this is inconsistent with the principles of a diverse and pluralist society. In fact, it is the defence of all that I have presented here which is the mark of a genuinely pluralist and diverse democracy.
One Catholic commentator recently describes the Catholic school ‘proposes itself as an educational community that not only frames itself within a determined set of values – those of the Gospel – and transmits them, but also seeks to live them and make them alive through an experience of communion’ which takes the form of building cohesive, caring and life giving local communities which may not even be Christian in their belief.
It is for this reason that a Catholic vision of education is always and everywhere an education that can only truly be carried out in a relational and communitarian context, beginning with the family and then with the parish and the school. No other system of education offers this essentially community and communitarian approach to formation of our most precious and treasured gift of our Creator – the child.
There is a famous saying in the Book of Proverbs – it is part of the Wisdom literature and every teacher is in need of wisdom! It says that – ‘Without a vision, the people perish’.
If I am unapologetic, if I am passionate about Catholic education, it is because I believe with every part of my being that it presents the vision of the whole truth of the human person in relation to God, to each other and within our deepest personal existence. For those of you who share that vision, who work within it as leaders in your schools, my hope is that you will find time to reflect, recapture and rekindle that vision in all its significance for your schools. We need to create more opportunities to come together like this to explore and deepen our shared understanding and common commitment to the ethos and values which animate all of our schools. I note and welcome the fact that the Department has supported your participation in this conference with funding for supply teachers. I hope that more funding might be made available to give principals and other teachers the opportunity to come aside, to find rest for your souls, time to reflect and pray, so that you can keep your vision alive and share it with the children in your care. The danger of burn out for principals and for teachers should be a real concern.
For those who work in other sectors, I hope you will understand the vision of education and the child that animates Catholic education and challenge us continually to live it in reality. I hope that together we will finds ways to maximise our cooperation for the common good.
Pope Paul VI once said that the first aim of Catholic education is to make the civilisation of love a reality. There is a lot to challenge all of us in that.
In conclusion let me say, in absolute sincerity, how much I admire, appreciate and respect the vital work you do for the children in your care and for our society. To paraphrase Aristotle: The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, rather – they make all the difference. That is the importance of what you do.
Or let me illustrate in the words of another philosopher, a young man who after the leaving Mass at his school went up to one of teachers and gave her a big hug. When she asked him ‘What was that for?’ he simply turned to her and said, ‘because Miss, over these last few years, you gave me wings!’.
I wish you every blessing and the gift of renewed energy and vision over the rest of your Conference. Thank you for inviting me and thank you for listening.