The evolution of primary education in Ireland

As we approach the bi-centenary of the Irish National School system, in 1831, Michael Crowley looks at its evolution and says it’s time to start a conversation about the role of primary education in the new Ireland in order to create a more inclusive and innovative force in Irish society

The origins of State-supported national school education for the people of Ireland dates to that period before the Famine when, under British colonial rule, Lord Edward Stanley was Chief Secretary. Stanley’s ambitious educational initiative in Ireland was the first of its kind in Europe and even predated the provision of primary education to the general population in England by some thirty years or more. It was a very novel initiative and a clear break in continuity from the past efforts of hedge school masters, privateers or societies like the Kildare Place Society (KPS). Many of those societies were, some have claimed, hell-bent on converting the majority Catholic population to the Protestant faith. On the other hand, hedge schools, which had flourished during the era of the Penal Laws, were also considered to be dangerous hotbeds of republican sentiments by the British colonial administration. In general before 1831, education was haphazardly organised, mostly fee-paying, lacking in recognisable standards with mostly untrained teachers and was, philosophically and financially, out of the reach of the majority peasant population of Ireland. At that time, ordinary people had no need to become literate or numerate and were busy eking out an existence in a densely populated country with a very low standard of living. Nevertheless, the new State-supported and regulated system was intended to provide an education for the poorer peasant classes in Irish society and it was a novel departure by the British Administration in Ireland given their general adherence to the political philosophy of ‘Laissez-Faire’ which believed in non-intervention and held the view that those who suffered from misfortunate or misery at home, or, in the colonies, had only themselves to blame.

The 1831 Education Act was, clearly, intended to be a new beginning and as the Stanley Letters stated, ‘… a system of Education from which should be banished even the suspicion of proselytism, and which, admitting children of all religious persuasions, should not interfere with the peculiar tenets of any’. Religious affiliation was not to be a factor in terms of attendance at these schools. It was intended that these schools would be open for up to four days a week and that approved Clergy of any persuasion could, on the remaining days, if they so wished, provide denominational religious instruction to their members only. Attendance did not become compulsory until 1872. Unfortunately, this new scheme was to provide instruction through English only and Irish was not to be a subject area of instruction. As a result, many would claim that the National School system killed the Irish language but that is, at best, simplistic and the slow decline of Irish during the 19th century was an obvious aspect of life to which many factors contributed. Amongst these, the economic boom that accompanied the Napoleanic Wars, the move away from cottage industry, the drive to industrialise and urbanise, all of which brought a sharper focus on the literacy and numeracy skills that were essential in the marketplace, should be considered more significant.

Under the terms of the 1831 Act, locally-owned and state-funded schools were developed and funded to the tune of 80 per cent by the State. Over the next 50 years, schools were built all over Ireland and free education was provided to all who chose to attend. By 1870 almost 7,000 schools had been constructed across the country, at roughly three-mile intervals. This had increased to almost 10,000 by the turn of the 20th Century and, by that time, almost every parish in the county had a school, which became an important mark of their identity usually personified in the local ‘Master’ who became a community leader and point of contact in many aspects of local life. Hedge schools had all but disappeared by 1870 and the many voluntary religious groups (Protestant Societies, Sunday School Societies, Religious Orders of Nuns and Christian Brothers) of all denominations were slowly incorporated into the national system as it grew.

Thus began the Irish engagement with formal education on grand scale. The 3,250 or so primary schools currently operating in Ireland still reflect the structures that were put in place almost two centuries ago, although their ambition today has broadened to include an expectation that, in line with the article 29 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, within their walls all young people have the opportunity to develop their ‘personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to the fullest’. The modern curriculum is designed to support that ideal and is, when effectively implemented, a window of opportunity onto the world of creativity and knowledge. Many contextual factors make its implementation difficult, but in general, schools today are child-friendly and outcomes focused and provide a good foundation for learning.

However, let us not forget that educational provision is always underpinned by political and/or religious ideologies and this has been apparent from the start. It could be argued, for example, that the effort to educate the peasantry of Ireland was a social experiment destined to serve the Empire by civilising the Irish without forcing them to renege on their traditional religious beliefs; a praiseworthy initiative in many respects or a realisation, perhaps, that repression (Penal Laws, etc.) had failed. However, that plan was thwarted by the emerging power of the Catholic Church in post-Famine Ireland with Cardinal Cullen being the chief architect of that political victory. Once managerial control was established, the schools in post-famine Ireland became a major platform on which the Catholic Church established its powerful foothold on Irish society. The Catholic hierarchy saw schools as a perfect vehicle through which they might exert a positive, as they understood it, but, ultimately, controlling influence over society. The major Church figure in post famine Ireland was Cardinal Paul Cullen and his intentions were clear from the statement attributed to him that, ‘Catholic children should be taught in Catholic schools by Catholic teachers under Catholic control’. Consequently, by the turn of the twentieth century, local parish schools built under the terms of the 1831 Act were denominationally segregated and clerically managed. This was one of the first practical examples of the Church-State joint governance model of social control that, arguably, cast a long shadow on Irish society following independence from Britain when the vast majority of schools (95 per cent-plus at one stage) were under the patronage of the Catholic Bishops of each Diocese.

Following independence, primary schools quickly came to be seen as an ideal political platform on which our lost culture and traditions and language might be restored following centuries of colonial oppression; a recurring post-colonial phenomenon in newly independent nations across the world. This was an era when, for the general population, their education ended at 14-years-of-age, as Second Level schools were scare and, more importantly, fee paying putting them beyond the reach of the majority. In post-independence Irish schools, history was re-packaged, the restoration of the Irish language became a national obsession and schools became functional places where facts, dates, lists, prayers and Catechism questions were learned by rote and where fear and corporal punishment was the order of each day for many pupils with educational challenges or for those without social capital. An understandable but very narrow educational philosophy began to emerge which dominated Irish Primary Schools for the 50 years that followed independence and no major curriculum reform happened until the early 1970s. Since the seventies, the curriculum has been broadened, education is a lot more child-centred, additional help is provided for pupils with learning difficulties, corporal punishment has been assigned to the dustbin of history and clerical control has declined to the extent that it is now, increasingly, irrelevant. Unfortunately, alongside reform came new political ideologies which replaced the cultural nationalism of ‘Holy Catholic Ireland’ with the concept of education serving the workplace. Today, schools are constantly badgered by external initiatives which serve to promote some current or populist agenda. These are, not necessarily, bad agendas but they come in a ‘one size fits all packages’ which, sometimes, ignores the local in favour of the populist, global.

Indeed it may now be opportune, in the decade leading up to the bi-centennial celebration of the Irish primary school system, to re-evaluate the merits of its non-denominational objectives, which were thwarted by the status quo of that time as represented by the emerging political influence of a reforming Catholic church in Ireland. Maybe it is time to have an open and inclusive national conversation about school patronage that reflects current rather than historic or self-serving agendas. Maybe it is time to reflect, in the run up to 2031, on the political ideology that underpins education today and re-frame the school system to reflect the needs of new exciting communities that want only what is best for their children and that are well capable of re-imagining schools for that purpose without being exclusionary or elitist. The majority of schools do remain under Catholic patronage (90 per cent-plus) but, in reality, they are welcoming and inclusive of all denominations and none. All are, in my experience, simply local schools who look after all members of their community without prejudice with their Catholic ethos being most evident in the manner in which they model inclusivity and accept diversity. However, discussions of this nature are often negatively framed around the time allocated to ‘Faith Formation’ in Catholic schools; those who don’t wish to attend are accommodated but, especially in smaller schools, there is a huge challenge in providing additional activities in supervised alternative classrooms due, mainly, to lack of human and physical resources. There is, we are told by official Ireland, no rush to divest these schools to other patronage providers such as Educate Together, and so on but maybe that is just a way of avoiding an open and honest discussion on these important matters. But is it necessary that every school should allow for religious preference in proportion to the community it serves and how is that possible? Or is it time to separate religion from education and replace denominational Faith Formation with moral development as a common link between all faiths and none. Should religion be removed from schools and relocated in the Churches, Mosques and Synagogues of Ireland? And given the reality that many of the teachers who teach religion do not practice it, should it be left in the hands of trained and committed practitioners, i.e. those ritual specialists of their respective religious denominations? These are, undoubtedly, complex questions but maybe we need to talk about them and develop a bottom-up approach that understands the spirituality of the modern Irish family and that is not rooted in a dated and inflexible religious perspective drowning in dogma and self-imposed regulatory prohibitions.

The Irish national school system was intended to be non-denominational but became denominational due to the historical and polemical context from which it emerged. Today, though we remain cultural Catholics, the evidence of Catholic dogma and ritual in the public spaces that we occupy is diminished greatly. Though religion is mostly confined in our schools to the celebration of the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation,  many are still exercised by it. In real terms there are not half enough priests in the Diocese of Cork and Ross to maintain the same level of involvement with schools as before and this will get increasingly worse given the age profile of priests in the Diocese and the mostly empty seminaries. Beyond their practical role in the holistic development of each child in their assigned schools, which they can’t and don’t fulfil, choosing instead to devolve responsibility to teachers in a meaningless covenant enshrined in a piece of paper (Certificate in Religious Instruction) that confirms teachers are qualified to teach religion regardless of their personal views, the clergy are becoming invisible in schools. The Catholic Patronage model has, since the 1970s, devolved responsibility for school governance to local voluntary Boards of Management (BOM) which are reviewed every four years. This huge structure is built on volunteerism and hardly fit for purpose in the litigiously aware society we now live in. Schools are complex places with many stakeholders to represent. and local chairpersons, no matter how well-intentioned, can often wander into uncharted waters. Nor does the BOM structure always allow for the very best fit with respect to the appointment of school chairpersons, for example. This appointment is at the discretion of the patron who nominates two people onto every school board. The patron will, understandably, opt for someone who is, ideally, a practicing Catholic but, at the minimum, will need to support the school ethos and be a person of good standing in the locality and a safe pair of hands who will work within the agreed governance parameters – no radicals need apply!             

But so much is taken for granted; so much is accepted without question; so much lip-service and pretence is evident and there appears to be no appetite for reimagining the structures that define our schools from a managerial perspective.

Notwithstanding all that, the Catholic patronage model has served schools well and without considering the merits of alternative models of management it would be foolish to just ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. As the old order wanes, new powers emerge that dominate the educational airways and media outlets. Education, the media constantly remind us, now needs to be designed to serve the workplace and corporate giants want skilled practitioners to emerge from the education system, i.e., fully trained and ready to enter the workplace and hit the ground running. This is evident in the proliferation of more specific, technical courses and degree programmes which are now on offer in Irish Universities and in the reduced intake to Humanities programmes which were the favoured route for many graduates in times past. Creative thinkers are inferior to practical problem solvers these days it seems. This is evident in the dependence of universities on corporate funding and international students to the detriment of their role in guiding social change through informed debate. Outside of the historical area of debate where academics analysis is still sought, where are the public figures that once framed social dialogue in Ireland? What has happened to all the intellectuals with a social conscience and a clear view on what society should look like?

The journey of almost two centuries has been an interesting one and many of the points and issues referred to could become the basis for future debate – the sooner the better in my view! In the run in to the bi-centennial celebration of formal educational provision in 2031 we need to re-evaluate the role of education and especially our primary schools because they will be the foundation stone of the new Ireland which must become a more inclusive, creative and innovative force for good in the new order of Irish society. Many schools are examples of good practice in that respect but some skeletons also hide in closets. It’s time to think about the future before it takes us by surprise and leads down a philosophical cul de sac, or, we are presented with some ‘fait accompli’ which disregards tradition or may not put the rights of all stakeholders on an equal footing.

Dr Michael Crowley

Michael Crowley, Ed.D is a retired educationalist. In his career he has worked in primary education as a teacher/principal, in teacher training, in teacher professional development, in school evaluation and in adult education. His particular areas of interest are the history of education, school leadership and change management. He still works, from time to time, in an advisory/consultancy capacity with schools.

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