Intercultural strategy and more resources needed for schools
OPINION: New legislation may be needed to deal with schools which refuse to welcome all children, argues Philip Watt
14 April 2008
NEXT SEPTEMBER will see three new primary schools opening in the Phoenix Park, Phibblestown and Diswellstown areas of Dublin. At first sight, this does not seem out of the ordinary.
New schools will continue to be needed as the population increases. However, these primary schools will be different. For the first time in the history of the State, they will be under the direct patronage of the Government through the VEC, the vocational education committee.
They will be open to children of all faiths and of none, responding to the diverse needs of a changing society. This is a very positive development and adds a new choice in these three areas to the existing primary school patronage system, which is defined by schools with a Catholic or a Protestant ethos.
The only major surprise in the development of community primary schools is that they have taken so long to emerge. In contrast, VEC community colleges are now commonplace at second level.
It is likely that most new primary schools will follow this VEC patronage model. This does not mean the new schools with be devoid of religious education. Religion, along with civics, will continue to be taught as a subject as part of the national curriculum.
This new model of primary school makes a lot of sense as religious and ethnic diversity in Ireland grows. Four in every five primary schools have students from at least two religious backgrounds and one in six schools has children from at least six different faiths.
In some primary schools with a Catholic or Protestant ethos, one-third or more of the student population are members of minority religious and/or ethnic background.
This diversity has major challenges for teachers and boards of management. Some of the new students and their parents may have poor English. Some students may require extra support because of their experience as refugees or because of significant cultural differences. Irrespective of background, all children including Irish children will need support to promote intercultural dialogue and understanding in the classroom.
By and large schools continue to meet these challenges as best as they can, and have sought to make all children welcome, irrespective of background. Many schools have also found that newcomer children are eager to learn and contribute to a learning environment within the school.
However, it is also clear that a number of schools remain determinedly monocultural and mono-religious in their approach, despite the demographic profile of their local neighbourhood and student catchment areas.
It is further evident from our own experience, and feedback from teachers, that some schools are more diverse than others because they have active intercultural policies and parents of minority children continue to commute their children to such schools, even after they have moved to another area.
We will of course continue to have a largely denominational primary school patronage system in Ireland for the foreseeable future and for many parents, these will remain the school of choice. There is, therefore, need for all those involved in the present system of school patronage to ensure that our schools are as inclusive as possible.
Recent statements by both the Catholic and Protestant leadership in this context are very welcome. There is growing realisation of the challenges of all schools to be inclusive. The ongoing commitment of most principals and boards of management to ensure that all children are welcomed and equally valued, whatever their background, is also to be welcomed.
However, more pressure needs to be exerted on the schools that continue to exclude or make little effort to integrate students from diverse backgrounds.
In the case of persistent refusal to introduce fair enrolment policy and practice, the Government may need to consider introducing additional legislation and measures to ensure all schools play their part in the integration process.
It is also evident from recent events in Balbriggan that exclusion of new communities from some schools can sometimes also be a matter of omission rather than commission.
For example, parents from new communities are sometimes too late in enrolling their children because they did not realise their chosen school enrolled new students in February rather than June as they might have expected. All schools must ensure that the whole community is aware of how to secure a school place, including by advertisement and neighbourhood circulars.
While choice of school should remain an important principle in our education system, it must not be at the cost of creating a segregated school system that is a feature of parts of many other EU countries, including northern Britain. In recent independent reports, faith schools in Britain of all religions have been criticised as contributing to the process of developing "parallel communities", where there is little interaction between minority and majority communities and for cherry-picking students. This process cannot be allowed to become institutionalised here.
Future primary and secondary school policy will require an evidence-based approach that closely monitors and responds to trends at a local and regional level as well as at a national level. Experience elsewhere shows that without early intervention and above all "planning ahead" whole schools can quickly be perceived as "white schools" or "black schools".
A further important consideration is the additional resource needs of schools arising out of increased diversity in the classroom and the impact on day-to-day teaching.
In this context, it is to be welcomed that the Department of Education and Science has commissioned the ESRI to undertake such a study of 40 per cent of all primary and second-level schools, which is due to be completed in autumn 2008. Minister for Education Mary Hanafin's commitment to a national conference in September on these issues is also to be welcomed.
A new integration unit has also been established within the Department of Education, but this unit is significantly under-resourced and needs to be expanded as a matter of urgency, as does the resources available for the Minister for Integration.
The Government is to be commended on its resourcing of language teachers in primary schools which is significantly better than in Britain. On the other hand there is virtually no in-service training for teachers to manage the new intercultural classroom.
Above all a new national intercultural education strategy is urgently needed, not as an add-on to existing education policy, but to ensure that all aspects of existing policy, from the curriculum to enrolment policy, are inclusive of both our new and our existing minority children, including migrant and Traveller children.
In short, the development of new VEC community primary schools is a welcome development, but for the foreseeable future they are only a small part of an overall intercultural strategy that must be inclusive of all forms of school patronage and all aspects of whole school management.
Nimble footwork does not always come naturally to government departments, but nimble footwork with an injection of new resources and the active support of all key stakeholders is now urgently required.
Philip Watt is director of the NCCRI, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism. Intercultural and Anti Racism Week, which began yesterday, has an education theme this year
© 2008 The Irish Times