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Have faith-based schools a future?

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Ireland remains a deeply unequal country economically and socially, and these inequalities have deepened in the current crisis. Yet it has a long history of faith-based education. Why then, if faith-based education matters so much, has it had so little impact on our social and political life?”

So said Professor Kathleen Lynch, of UCD’s Equality Studies Centre, raising one of many contentious questions that were explored in depth at the ‘Rethinking Education in Ireland Conference’ in Galway on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 October. It was organised by the Ignatian Identity Group of Coláiste Iognáid, to kick start their celebration of 150 years of the Jesuit School, (known locally as ‘the Jes’) in Sea Rd Galway.

In her talk ‘Equality in faith-based education: Some challenges,’ Professor Lynch examined the fundamental internal contradiction that she saw between professing values of truth, love and social justice, and then “preserving power organisationally through institutional structures that are deeply hierarchical, patriarchal, and, at times, unloving”. This contradiction is not unique to faith-based schools, she said, “but it is a particular problem for them, given the nature of the religious values they profess.”

Others questions addressed at the conference included: Is there any room in contemporary Western societies, including Ireland, for a faith-based education?  Can that education still offer quality and value diversity? Is there any value added in a faith- based education?

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, opened proceedings on Friday morning and argued that faith-based education in the Irish setting now provides a context for the pupil to experience the best of the values of Christianity. By extension, as Irish life develops and expands culturally and religiously, it would do the same for their experience of World Faiths, he claimed.

“It provides a crucible in which caricature can be challenged and understanding can refute prejudice, whether one belongs to a minority or a majority”.

He also spoke of his interest in the word ‘ethos’ and went on to unpack in some detail what this sometimes woolly word might mean.  He spoke of his own experience in the Middle East and Africa where he said, faith-based education in Christian schools was often sought in significant numbers by non-Christian parents, for their children.

“In these contexts, such an experience facilitates the sort of understanding and respect for difference and diversity which is vital to the survival of a society in a fraught inter-faith context.”

Professor John Coolahan is a member of the government appointed advisory group for the ‘Forum on Patronage and Pluralism’ in primary schools. He gave a comprehensive presentation of the work of the Forum which was welcomed and praised by conference participants for its clarity and transparency.

He said that the forum is not aimed at designing a new primary school system, but adapting it to be more accommodating to the rights of contemporary citizens.

Dr Anne Looney gave a presentation in which she outlined the factors that make curriculum and assessment happen in Ireland. She noted the impact of new technology as one such driver, quoting a recent survey indicating that one in four Irish teenagers sleep with their mobile phone beneath their pillow.

Cue Richard Leonard SJ, who specialises in communications and modern media, and whose talk was entitled in, ‘The World in our Face: How does Catholic Education Enable our Staff and Students to Download the Best and Leave the Rest?’

During a detailed Powerpoint presentation, Dr Leonard spoke about the really valuable aspects of digital technology for students and young people, such as excellent information websites, social interaction, community-based sites, news, music, film and much more, all at the click of a mouse.

But he also addressed the downside of same, including cyber-bullying, internet addiction, pornographic sites, and the potential for young people to use the internet as a substitute for real face to face human interaction.

He also noted that surveys have confirmed the anecdotes that students are regularly coming into school tired having been on the internet through computer or phone, when their parents thought they were fast asleep in bed.

Addressing the all too tragic problem of cyber bullying he said it was really important that parents were across what was happening with their children on social networking sites, knowing their passwords and having a room for the computer that was not their son or daughter’s bedroom.  He also suggested among other things a responsible (even if younger) adult, who might be able to keep a watchful eye out for them and how they were relating and being related to on social network sites.

Brian Flannery, the Education Delegate for the Jesuits in Ireland outlined the values of a Jesuit school in an Irish context. Academically, he said, they should be places of excellence. They should also be places where there is a permeating culture of a commitment to justice. And that commitment should come out of a real faith based on a sense of the Transcendent.

Referring to the impact Kathleen Lynch’s talk made on him, he said this vision for Jesuit schools was really challenging. We have to ask, he said, is what we do cosmetic or do the lessons we teach our students really help them address the injustice of Ireland’s unequal society.

Jose Mesa SJ, the Education Delegate for the Jesuits worldwide, said there was a challenge globally for Jesuits schools operating in a secular context, and that challenge should be met with imagination, creativity, trust in God and in a living, organic sense of tradition.

He drew on the example of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary who went to China in 1582 and who learnt Chinese and dressing in Chinese clothing. He knew that being a missionary meant that he had to learn how God was actually working in Chinese culture before ever beginning to assume to ‘teach’ them, he said. And then he incarnated the gospel in the language and traditions of the culture to enrich it and renew it.

“God always arrives before us”, he said. “And we must know this when we walk into our classrooms, where God is already at work. If we make our schools places of academic excellence and at the same time, offer the kind of hope, community and love that the gospel builds, we can still make a difference in the lives of our students and kindle a fire that kindles other fires.”

Dr Mary Madec, former teacher, now parent, poet and lecturer, spoke of the advice she got many years ago, when setting out on her teaching career. It was very simple and yet, she said, probably the wisest thing she could have been told, by a retiring teacher. “He said ‘love your students’. How transformative education is, where love is at the core.”

 One hundred people, including principals, teachers, parents, Jesuits and students attended the conference over two days. They added their voices to the conversation that the organisers say is vital and must continue if Irish people are to develop the best possible education for their children and their society, today, and long into the future.

You can listen to all the conference talk by clicking on the audio section of:  www.rethinkingeducation.ie