The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good, has used his last speech as bishop to the General Synod of the Church of Ireland to call for the political institutions at Stormont to be restored so the problems in education can be tackled.
Presenting the Report of the Board of Education (NI), Bishop Good said the state of education in the province had gone way beyond ‘crisis’. “The needle on the dial has shifted into the red zone,” he told the Synod. “The alarm bells are ringing. The klaxons are sounding. But little is happening to prevent the fabric of our education system from unravelling.”
Echoing Tuesday’s call by the church leaders for courageous leadership from the Stormont parties and a resumption of normal political life, Bishop Good said he could not overstate the magnitude of the problem in Northern Ireland’s schools. Thesystem was under pressure on three fronts, he suggested: there was a vision deficit; there was a financial deficit; and there was a morale deficit.
“We are in danger of failing this generation of young people,” he said. “We will be failing future generations. When it comes to something as important as our education system, failure is not an option.”
Bishop Good said the Department of Education had initiated a transformation agenda which was “full of potential” but without a minister in place to take and implement decisions, a committee to oversee it and a real budget to make it happen, the agenda was running into the sand because of a lack of courageous and strategically implemented vision. “We need intervention – urgent intervention – by those with power in our society.”
The education system in Northern Ireland was also in financial crisis, the Bishop said. Since 2010/11, the spending power of education budgets had fallen by £233 million. Lack of funding and lack of vision lead to sinking morale, he said, particularly in staff rooms, principals’ offices and in boards of governors’ meetings.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The Bishop highlighted four grounds for encouragement: school governance and the recent reconstitution of school boards of governors; shared education and youth provision; the Controlled School Support Council; and children’s ministry, in particular the potential merger of the Sunday School Society and the Children’s Ministry Network.
Seconding the report, Canon Brian O’Rourke gave the picture from the Republic of Ireland Board, reflecting on the role and context of our schools in the community.
“There are many aspects to life in the local community and parish. But we are mistaken and short–sighted if we do not value our role in our schools as a core function of the mission of the church. As a parish community, our school not only provides the parents in our congregations with a school of their own ethos for the education of their children—a right under Article 42 of the Constitution and Article 14 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights—it also opens the way for other parents to choose an alternative faith-based ethos for their children. In this way we are contributing to the catering for pluralism and diversity in contemporary Irish society,” he said.
He stated that Church of Ireland primary schools were embedded in towns and villages across the Republic of Ireland while second level schools, despite being few, were recognised as centres of educational excellence.
On a national level, he said, the involvement of the Church in education allowed an opportunity to play a formative role in the development of future generations of young people and to engage with Government and State in a meaningful way.
“At a time when the evolving diversity of modern Ireland is giving voice to a strong secularist understanding of life, as opposed to a tolerant and pluralistic understanding of life, we, as a church need to cherish and affirm our involvement in education and its importance to the communities in which we serve and whom we serve,” Canon O’Rourke contended. “So often, church involvement in education is characterised as the clerics seeking to control the formative years of young people. Yet, this General Synod displays that the Church of Ireland is a democratic Church and that leadership is collaborative. Schools are collaborative enterprises too!”
He added that each child deserved the best possible education and said that the best education was rooted in the values which orientate and ground the individual in that which is right and true.
Speaking to the report, Elizabeth Paver (Church of England) said she was moved on hearing the concerns expressed by Bishop Good about schools. She had been a primary principal for 30 years and was deeply moved that all these years later central government did not understand that education was a fundamental investment in any nation. She said she would speak to the Church of England Board of Education to see if there was anything they could do together.
The Revd Adrian Dorrian (Down) commended the TRC seminars for transferrer governors.
Archbishop Richard Clarke expressed his thanks to Bishop Good for chairing the NI Board of Education, filling a gap which he would not have been able to fill.
Bishop John McDowell said that the message had to go out to Government that people were fed up about the situation surrounding education in Northern Ireland.
Canon Gillian Wharton paid tribute to Bishop Good who—as chaplain—inspired her to become ordained. She said that having a chaplain was not the same as having school counsellors. Sometimes the chaplain was the only exposure to a person of faith in school, she said, and added that synod needed to support school chaplaincy because its impact was “immeasurable”.
Archbishop Michael Jackson (Dublin and Glendalough) spoke about the Admissions to Schools Act. A number of provisions of the Act were set in train in October 2018 with the rest still to come into play. All relevant schools will already have been working with the provisions of the school in their admissions for 2019. Section 11 of the Act affects schools under Protestant management meaning that denominational schools when oversubscribed cannot use denomination as a criterion. Minority faith schools are the exception to this and schools of minority faiths can give priority to those of that faith, but not specifically of the Church of Ireland. The school can make its own provision on other criteria such as distance from the school. Analysis will take place to assess the impact of the Act on Church of Ireland schools and children. In Dublin and Glendalough so far, no child of the Church of Ireland tradition has been disadvantaged.
Jackie Wilkinson (Cork, Cloyne and Ross and CIC DCU) spoke about the ‘Follow Me’ programme which is delivered to B.Ed students in the Church of Ireland Centre in DCU and for practicing teachers in Protestant schools around the country. She said that in the CIC DCU they engaged in the stakeholder schools and were researching the ‘student voice’ in Church of Ireland schools. She looked forward to bringing information from the research to Synod 2020.
Bishop Michael Burrows (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) talked of policy development warning that things of enormous importance could get squeezed. He raised the issue of the subject of history in schools, particularly at Junior Cert level. In the Republic, there had been an enormous debate about the importance of understanding our past, he said. President Michael D Higgins had stated that history should remain part of the Junior Cycle. It would be ironic if while commemorating the current centenaries we let history slip in the squeeze, Bishop Burrows said. “In this island of ours, history will torture us unless we strive to understand it.”
A motion dealing with amendments to the Constitution of the Board of Education was proposed by Bishop Good and seconded by Canon O’Rourke.
A second motion dealing with changes in representation on the Down and Connor and Dromore Diocesan Board of Education was taken.
Both were passed.