25 FEBRUARY 2010

Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be with you at this first major Conference organised by the Catholic Principals’ Association. I thank your Chairman, Dr Seamus Quinn for his kind invitation to be here. I offer my congratulations to the organising committee on providing such an impressive two-day programme.

Today I simply want to convey to you the support and gratitude of the Trustees for your outstanding leadership. Your commitment to the mission of Catholic education at this critical time is much appreciated.  The title you have chosen for the Conference is particularly apt – Renewing our Stewardship. We meet in Lent and Lent is a time of renewal. It is a time for honest reflection on how things are going. It is a time in particular, for reflecting on how we are living up to our responsibilities to God, to others and to ourselves. In that context today’s Gospel gives us excellent advice for renewal.  Jesus is delivering the Sermon on the Mount and he says: 

“Ask and it will be given to you;
Seek and you will find:
Knock and it will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks receives; and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 
What human being among you, when your child asks for a loaf will give them a stone?  Or, if they ask for a fish will you give them a snake? 
So if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him”
So I suggest, that in addition to conferencing, this Lent is also a time for prayerful discerning – The question is: how the stakeholders in education may find the right way forward.  That way – I suggest – must take account of the fact that every pupil is made in the image and likeness of God.  Their hearts are restless until they rest in God.  The education that is offered must be fit for purpose at all times and never yield to the temptations to be minimalistic in this regard.

We are also here to talk about stewardship – our shared stewardship of Catholic education.  The word ‘stewardship’ is important and rich in biblical references. A steward is someone who has been given responsibility to administer the Master’s property according to the Master’s instructions. We are talking here about a mission we have received on sacred trust from Jesus Christ.  Jesus called his followers to ‘go out and teach all nations’. We are talking about a sacred trust which has been given to us by the community of Christ’s believers, the Church.  We believe that the Church continues Christ’s mission of truth, justice, mercy and love in the world.

We are also talking about stewardship of a sacred trust given to us by parents.  Parents who wish to have their children educated in a school community defined and inspired by Catholic faith and values on a daily basis. Of course, all parents, whatever their denominational background, have this right to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions. This right is recognised in international instruments of human rights, including the European Convention on Human Rights.

Children also have a right to know God. They too have a right to receive the truth and life which God offers them in the Sacred Scriptures, in the sacraments and in prayer. If we really believe that Jesus Christ reveals the whole truth about the human person, then children have a right to receive that truth. If we really believe that the message of Jesus Christ is the key to a better world and the source of our eternal hope, then we also believe children have a right to be part of a school community in which Jesus and his message are lived, respected and promoted. Children also have a right to worship God as part of their daily activity. They have a right to be trained and formed in the worship and prayer of the faith community to which they belong. Renewing our stewardship of Catholic schools has to involve renewing our commitment to respecting and promoting the right of children in our schools to be led and formed in authentic worship of God in the Catholic tradition. This is not some optional extra. Children and their parents have a right to expect a Catholic school to provide children with a formation in prayer and worship. That is why I make a special appeal to you as leaders of your school community to reflect seriously on this essential part of our shared duty of stewardship.

As the Irish Bishops’ Conference said in its Pastoral Letter, VISION 08: A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland, ‘An education which makes no room to address the fundamental questions about the meaning of life could not be described as seeking [the] holistic development [of its students].’ Catholic schools seek to transform, not only the individual human lives of our pupils, but also, through them, the wider society which they help to build.  For this reason we should never apologise for our convictions about Catholic education.  I suggest rather that we reflect upon its proud history, its purpose and achievements.  That is another reason why I am glad that the Conference is taking place now.  It gives us an opportunity to do exactly that.

Last Sunday I celebrated Confirmation in the parish of Mellifont.  The majestic ruins of the Abbey of Mellifont and Monasterboice were nearby.  These famous monasteries were once centres of prayer but also, in many cases, centres of learning and education.  As we know they were suppressed but the desire for Christian education lived on in the hearts and minds of the people and gradually resurrected itself.  Today I am glad to say that there are Catholic schools flourishing in each of those parishes, lead by competent lay professional educators, staffed by committed, highly trained teachers and managed by dedicated Boards of Management – composed of representatives of parents, teachers and owners – who give of their time and talents – freely and generously for the good of the community.  As someone remarked at a Conference in Dublin recently, they give of their time freely not only to attend meetings of the Boards of Governors but also to make the tea on the Open Nights and other similar occasions.  I say these schools are flourishing because they strive to answer the needs of pupils made in the image of God. 

Like many of you, I have been associated all my life with Catholic schools in one capacity or another – first as a pupil at primary and post-primary, then as a student at university level.  Then came payback time – first as teacher, then as Chair of a Board of Management, and now as a Governor and Trustee.  Of course I don’t have to remind you of what a Trustee is:  someone to whom powers of administration are given in trust with a legal obligation to administer it solely for the purposes specified.  Like the Steward, the Trustee must be faithful to the Trust received.

I believe we should never apologise for insisting that our rights as a community of faith are respected and treated on the same basis as the rights of others. This is what we expect from a society which claims to respect pluralism and diversity. That is why I ask you today to support the Trustees of Catholic schools in their efforts to ensure that the ethos and defining character of Catholic schools are maintained in any process of restructuring and change in education policy or provision. That ethos and character are entrusted to Trustees for protection.  I believe they are to be conserved conscientiously and scrupulously. 

Consequently, the Trustees will not support any change in management arrangements for Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland which undermines existing rights of Trustees in relation to employment, management or area planning. The Catholic community has invested too much in their schools and in securing recognition for the rights of Catholic education to now see those rights diminished. The final position of the Trustees on the proposed Education Bill or on any alternative arrangements which may emerge over coming months will depend on a careful evaluation of the full details of what is proposed. Of course the Trustees will work hard with all other stakeholders to ensure that the provision of Catholic schools continues to be as cost-effective as possible. I believe this is achievable with minimum change to the existing legislative position and management structures of the Catholic network of schools. It is difficult to see how significant change to existing legislative arrangements for the management of Catholic schools can be justified on purely economic grounds.

The Trustees, on behalf of parents who want a Catholic education for their child, worked hard for many years to ensure that the right to have schools which are authentically Catholic was adequately provided for. This is why we will not support any proposal which diminishes the current legislative status of the Catholic network of schools or the existing rights of Catholic Trustees in respect of employment, management or area based planning. The Catholic Trustees in Northern Ireland will also continue to support efforts of the Protestant Churches to have their rights with regard to the Controlled sector respected in the context of the Education Bill or any other legislative change.

It is vital that we support each other in upholding the principle that parents have a right to schools which promote a religious ethos. Ethos means the characteristic spirit or attitudes and values of the school. The values around which a particular system of education is based are fundamental to it and to its effectiveness. Time and time again research confirms that a Catholic ‘Ethos adds value’ to a school. Catholic ethos adds value to the educational experience of a child, not just in terms of academic performance but in terms of the complete development of the person – a citizen of the kingdom of God and of a community here on earth of which they can be proud and in which they can be confident participants.

As stewards of Catholic education we can take encouragement from the fact that repeated international surveys confirm the positive impact of the ethos of a Catholic school That impact is seen, for example, in the social concern and tolerance of diversity of pupils who attend them. We must also acknowledge with humility any gap between our ideals and our practice and seek to address those gaps in a supportive and positive way.

This includes reflecting on our commitment to work with each other as a family of Catholic schools, with a responsibility for each other. Commitment to communion and community are defining characteristics of Catholic faith and life. There can be no room within a family of Catholic schools for attitudes of splendid isolation or ‘as long as I am okay, I don’t care about anyone else’. There can be no ‘second class’ Catholic schools. Part of being a Catholic school is to be part of a wider family of Catholic schools who work together to bear common witness to the vision of the Gospel. The Gospel itself calls us to be, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, ‘a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.’ (Lumen Gentium, n.1)  Of course this also means co-operating with all schools, with all those agencies in this noble enterprise that is education for a positive genuine reason.

That is why in recent years the Trustees of Catholic schools have been working hard to bring greater cohesion and unity to the mission and management of Catholic education across Ireland. This has led to the establishment recently of the all-Ireland Catholic Education Service. The CES will work with the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education and the newly established Catholic Schools Partnership in the south, in support of a common vision and approach to Catholic education across the island.

At its core, the vision set out in the document stresses the importance of working together and ensuring effective communication and collaboration with each other at every level.

That is why I also urge you to continue to support the Post-Primary Review process initiated by the Trustees. Next Monday the Trustees will launch a comprehensive consultation on the proposals for each of the sixteen PPR project areas. We hope that everyone with an interest in the future delivery of post-primary Catholic education in Northern Ireland will respond to these proposals. The views of the Catholic Primary school sector are critical to this process. Arrangements have been made to encompass Primary school staff and parents. We also want to hear the views of:

• pupils;
• parents;
• teachers;
• other school staff members;
• Boards of Governors;
• other educational partners; and
• the wider public.

Approaching the issue of academic selection at age in eleven in isolation from the myriad of other changes which confront schools in Northern Ireland is not helpful. I believe the most responsible and effective way to deal with the ‘transfer issue’ is as part of a more comprehensive strategy.  That strategy should take account of the imminent demographic downturn, the demands of the Entitlement Framework, the Sustainable Schools policy and the area-based approach to future planning. This is, I believe, the responsible, forward looking approach which the Trustees have been taking.

I thank you again for your kind invitation to be here. I wish you well for your time together and I hope we will all continue to be renewed in our commitment to Catholic education and the good news of Jesus Christ on which is it based. Thank you.