Parental choice is the prime driver behind the continual evolution of the educational system

Parental choice and local context will be key factors in determining how our education system will evolve in the coming years.

John Curtis, General Secretary AMCSS/JMB
Irish Independent (28th April 2022)

Parental choice and local context will be key factors in determining how our education system will evolve in the coming years.

The Joint Managerial Body (JMB) serves to represent the diverse range of school types that make up the voluntary secondary school system. We reflect the welcome pluralism available to parents: our sector comprises single-sex schools, co-educational schools, denominational schools, multi-denominational schools, non-denominational schools, boarding schools, schools in the DEIS programme, fee-charging schools, scoileanna lán Ghaeilge, all integral to the education system and successful because they have served and continue to serve the needs of local communities and the country as a whole.

International indices on investment in education all point to an ongoing deficit t in this country, and yet we have a system that is lauded abroad and enjoys the confidence of the majority of the population.

There are many reasons for this value placed on education; a history of service through many generations, from religious orders and lay people alike, that established standards and imbued a sense of volunteerism and a community structure that strengthened a sense of connection to the local school.

Another factor that may be relevant is that there is a healthy competition between schools, and indeed school types, and a diversity of approach that can prompt creativity and help to raise standards.

There is no perfect school, and indeed no perfect school system. Each of our schools has a context that will have influenced its evolution and that will determine how it will adapt or change, as all schools inevitably do, to cater for future need.

There has been debate recently as to the value or otherwise of the single-sex school. Most of the schools in our sector are single-sex and have served their communities well. That is not to say that they are any better than co-educational schools. All school types will have strengths and weaknesses. The point is that each has a particular context, serves a local need and how a school operates or develops is ultimately dependent on the exercise of parental choice.

We are finding that new schools and amalgamations are increasing the proportion of co-educational schools in the system, and the diversity this brings is very positive and increases choice for parents.

Context is also a factor in how the fee-charging sector has developed. Much of this relates to providing education to children of minority faiths and maintaining a boarding school component to our sector which serves the needs of many families.

The choice that parents make to educate their children in fee-charging schools saves the state an estimated €130million, funding that can be allocated elsewhere, such as to schools that serve the needs of disadvantaged communities.

For-profit education is becoming more prevalent n internationally.. Our fee-charging schools are a long-standing model of not-for-profit public private partnership. Fees are modest by international comparison and all our schools are charities where any finance generated has to support the educational enterprise. The relatively small number of schools in this sector generates an inordinate amount of comment, and perhaps we should reflect on what is a proportional response and the legitimacy of parental choice in this area.

Likewise, when deciding to send their children to a denominational school or otherwise, parents have the final say. A survey on perceptions of Catholic schooling displays a societal confidence in denominational education. Over 70% of parents supported the role of the Catholic church in our schools and, given that roughly half of our country’s second-level schools live out a denominational ethos, this points to genuine pluralism and respect for parental choice. what also emerges from is a concern among many parents that there may be a lack of resilience in younger generations in the absence of attachment to any kind of higher purpose or reason. In this regard, the standards that parents tend to value in a school with a Catholic ethos are firmly rooted in the idea of authentic holism, which includes the sacred.

We are heirs to quite a complex educational system in this country, but it has served us well, and as it has grown organically, we will adapt it over time in like manner.

Education, by its very nature, demands evolution and change.  Schools will always have to adjust and innovate to remain the relevant, vibrant and creative agencies that we all demand. We must encourage and promote this, permit a diversity of provision, and, within that, have confidence in the strength of what we have, and the legitimacy of the choices our parents will make.

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