Analysing The Concept Of Ethos Education Essay

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What is essential to the peculiarities of the educational system of Ireland is the concept of "ethos". Every school in the Republic is entitled to name an "ethos" for its establishment that is to pervade the teaching at the school. In today's Ireland the "ethos" of a school can be denominational, that is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or other religious faith, non-denominational or multi-denominational. Historically, the concept of "ethos" established itself to distance schools of the two denominations from one another, and thereby, it embodies the practice of "segregated education" in Ireland.

The use of the term "ethos" is problematic as it reflects a normative but at the same time vague concept. It is a "nebulous term", as Caitlin Donnelly argues, "often employed (…) to describe the distinctive range of values and beliefs which define the philosophy or atmosphere of an organisation". The teaching of those values and beliefs is the "purpose of schools" and plays an important role in the legislation of education. The 1999 Primary School Curriculum establishes as a main objective that children shall "develop the capacity to make ethical judgements informed by the tradition and ethos of the school". The "ethos" is thus established as a normative principle in the education of children. Children, whose parents are not interested in an education according to the school's ethos, may be withdrawn from the formal periods of instruction that are provided by the school's patron itself (if the patron is a religious body this is religious instruction). However, parents have no right to "insist that the ethos of the school be stripped of its religious elements", thus at denominational schools children may be forced to receive education in a fashion that their parents do not approve of. This policy is based on the idea of "local support" for every school; that is, a school and its "ethos" derive its legitimacy from a high number of pupils in the area attending the school and wishing to receive an education in its "ethos". Therefore, religious schools and their patrons have no interest in alternating or "reducing" their denominational character in favour of a minority, as such an alternation would be at the disadvantage to the community it seeks to serve. Denominational schools even have the prerogative to prefer pupils in admission who comply with the denominational character of the school . . . Emerging from those policies is the disintegrative character of "ethos". The "ethos" of a school legitimises discrimination

In the following paragraph attention is directed to the use of the term "ethos" in the media analysing the rationale of the enrolment crisis. A dominant argument in the debate about the reason why the non-catholic schoolchildren had been turned away from the existing faith schools in Balbriggan is that they did not share the "ethos" of these schools. The schools required the children's baptismal certificate to admit them as their pupils. A journalist of The Irish Times, Mary Raftery, comments on this the following:

This ethos appears at best a somewhat nebulous concept. It has been harnessed as an excuse to exclude some children from Catholic schools on the basis that they are of the wrong religion. In the peculiar world of Irish education, it seems that ethos can equate to a form of sectarian gatekeeping (TimesXX).

It is argued that the way "ethos" is used by the Catholic schools or by the law does not at all reflect the normative concept it is supposed to entail. It is misused as a mere argument to secure that only pupils of their religious group attend their schools. A similar argument is presented by a journalist of The Irish Independent:

"Ethos" means what? In this case, pieces of paper that say you were baptised a Catholic or that your mammy and daddy were married by a priest. Is this really what being a Christian means in 21st century? (Ind4).

Here again, the author implies that "ethos" is reduced to a mere mechanism to select pupils and has nothing to do with its original value that he describes as "being a Christian".

3.2 "Nominal" versus "Actual" Faith

The procedure of enrolment of pupils into Catholic schools elicited criticism because the schools resorted to categories of established religion (like the baptismal certificate) to prove that their pupils are of Catholic faith. Such a policy was considered by some journalists as contradictory to the Catholic Church's aim to provide education for children of parents who are interested in a Catholic education.

A debate arose concerning the discrepancy between the objective category of faith and the subjective category of "interest" in religious education. It was argued that:

Parents, desperate to get schooling for their children, thus find themselves under pressure to falsify their position, being pressured by concern for their children's education to baptise their children for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. (Times10)

It is implied that due to the lack of alternatives to denominational schools, parents are forced to pretend that they are Christians (or in this context: Catholics) that is, act against their conviction, merely in order to obtain a place in a school for their children. This essentially challenges the legitimacy of schools with a denominational orientation. An even stronger allegation against the dominance of Catholic denominational schools is made in a harsh article that was published in The Irish Independent:

Bishops know well that many parents and their pupils at Catholic schools are not Catholics in any real sense. At best many cling to cultural conventions, at worst they are pretending.


Worse than that, some parents of little or no real faith may be deliberately using their family's traditional Catholic cultural identity as a way of ensuring that their children attend schools where Muslims and certain other 'foreign' cultures of the 'new' Ireland will be excluded. (Ind4)

There are three strong allegations made in this statement. First, by the fact that the "bishops", that is the patrons and all other organisers of Catholic education in this sense, are aware that many parents are just pretending their faith, many of the faith schools are illegitimate as their presence is based on the principle of "local support". Above that, it questions the high emphasis that is given to the religious "ethos" in education. Second, it is said that for many parents with Catholic ancestors the admittance to a denominational school is easier than for those who cannot claim a Catholic ancestry, even though their depth of faith is equal. This implies that members of other faith groups or people without a Catholic heritage are disadvantaged. This is further emphasized by the assumption that, thirdly, parents turn to denominational schools because they can be sure that they are free of "'foreign' cultures" and "Muslims". Allegedly, parents seek denominational schools for their children because they are considered to be an effective protection against 'foreigners', which they see as a danger to good education. That is, they prefer a conservative Catholic education, although they do not have 'real faith'. This discrepancy between the objective and subjective adherence to a faith group then results in "people being turned away from national schools because they are not nominally Catholic (the depth of their actual faith is irrelevant)". (Ind4)

A different alleged implication of the Catholic schools' enrolment policy was examined by Garret FitzGerald, writing for the Irish Times. Due to a lack of school places in denominational schools, the Church authority sought for verification of the parents' deep faith:

In some cases they are indeed reported to have gone beyond this by seeking to establish that the parent are regular Mass-goers - even, it has been suggested, in some cases checking with the children the veracity of their parents on this matter! (sic!) (Times10)

What is presented here is another example of established religion, however oppositional to what has been described above. The Church authorities purportedly discipline parents, fearing of their children's education, to practise their religion and exploit the naivety of the parents' children. This, again, challenges the true purpose of an education in a Christian spirit.


3.3 Who is to blame?

The most extensive debate concerning the primary school enrolment crisis in 2007 has been on the question of responsibility for the failure to accommodate children in county North Dublin. In the following, it shall be analysed on what kind of discourses the arguments relating to the organisation of the education system are based. Attention should be devoted to the different ways this debate is covered by the two newspapers. While The Irish Times covers the topic profoundly with a variety of analyses concerning the debate, The Irish Independent remains superficial in its criticism.

3.3.1 Positive Rights

First, articles shall be analysed whose authors are not critical of the enrolment policy of the Catholic Church or do not consider it to be a source of the then crisis. Those authors argue within the discourse of the 'positive rights' approach towards religious education in Ireland. Shortly after it emerged that all of the children who had been turned away from schools in Balbriggan were not of Catholic faith, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, responded to the criticism concerning the enrolment policy that it was:

'very dishonest to have an enrolment policy that did not reflect the fact that our schools provide a Catholic education'. (Times4)

In the same article, he suggests a long-term solution to the crisis:

'I would be very happy to see a plurality of patronage and providers of education. I have no ambition to run the entire education system in Dublin'. (ibid)

It is obvious and natural that the Archbishop does not challenge the 'positive rights' perspective towards religion in the Irish education system. Instead, he opts for changes within the frame of the existing education system. For those children who do not qualify for an education at a Catholic denominational school or for those parents who are not interested in an education in the Catholic faith for their children, there should be an adequate alternative made available. A wider variety of school types besides the existing faith-based schools would also in part release the church of its responsibility related to being the sole provider of education. The other main actor in this crisis, the provider of multi-denominational schools, Educate Together, is more critical on the Church-State-relations with regard to education. The chief executive, Paul Rowe, writes in a guest article:

Faith-based schools may lawfully prefer those of their religion when taking enrolments. It is appropriate that parents may choose such a school if this is their preference and be confident that the school accurately delivers their choice. What is unacceptable is that in most areas of the country there is no choice. (…) It is a fundamental injustice to maintain a system of publicly funded education in which an increasing number of parents are compelled to send their children to a faith-based school because no alternative is available. It is particularly unacceptable that children baptised in a particular faith have priority in accessing State-funded education. (Times11)

Rowe here criticises the over-representation of denominational schools in the Irish education system and thus the lack of choice for parents as to where to send their children. As a cause of that, it is easier for children whose adherence to the Church is certified to access state-funded education. He also suggests a greater variety of school types besides the denominational ones, and above all, a greater number of those. However, he does not challenge the obligation of the state to fund denominational education, nor that the state vests the churches with prerogatives concerning enrolment. These two positions taken by the Archbishop of Dublin, as well as by the chief executive of Educate Together clearly reflect the "positive rights" perspective towards religion in an education system. That is, the state has the right to fund denominational education but also has the obligation to provide alternatives to these if it is the wish of the parents. The criticism expressed here centres on the concrete implementation of this approach, that is a descriptive problem, and not on the normative principle as such. There are, however, arguments put forward that reflect a different normative perspective. These shall be analysed later.

3.3.2 'Equal Status Act' vs. Anti-Discrimination

At the heart of the debate in relation to the responsibility for the crisis was the question if denominational schools are lawfully permitted to refuse to enrol schoolchildren because they do not share the denomination of the school, even though they are publicly funded. A law regarding this query can be found in the Equal Status Act of 2000, already mentioned in chapter 2. . . . . This law is the basis of the discourse and was often referred to in order to justify the enrolment policy of the Catholic denominational schools. The Minister for Education and Science, for example, referred to the paragraph, saying that "The Equal Status Act gives religious schools the right to enrol children of their own faith first." (Times5, 6 September). The director of education with the Archdiocese of Dublin, McDonagh, also referred to this law justifying that "We must stick to our enrolment policy of providing an education for Catholic children and siblings first." (Times13, 9 September). The media thus constructed the controversial Equal Status Act as the cause for the rejection of non-baptised children.

The Equal Status Act aroused even more controversy when it was revealed that its application had the effect that all schoolchildren who had been turned down had a black skin colour. This plight was named by many journalists "racism" or "racist". Even more blame was put on the Ministry and the Church in the debate when it emerged that the government was warned of exactly this scenario by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2005. It recognized the "intersectionality of racial and religious discrimination" by Irish law and called for the "legislative framework" to be amended. It warned that "existing laws and practice would favour Catholic pupils in the admission to Catholic schools in case of shortage of places, particularly in the light of the limited alternatives available". In this context, it became clear in the public that the legislation concerning education leads to problematic effects.

contrary to the view that such legislation allows for exemptions on religious ethos grounds

The reason for this opposition is that secularists elevate the principle of non-discrimination above all others, including religious freedom and the freedom of expression. Religious schools by their very definition, will discriminate in favour of their own members and then in favour of their own ethos. (Ind3)

Church and State were scrambling last week to cover up hard evidence that the use of public money for denominational schools no longer works as it once did. It is a shame. When places in schools are limited, then those children whose parents do not share the "ethos" of a particular local school must fend for themselves. (Ind4)

The Government is afraid to face down the Catholic bishops on this issue, perhaps partly because it suspects that public emotions about immigration could come to the boil if little Ollie failed to get into a local national school while some Muslim from Nigeria did. (Ind4)

And there is evidence, not just from Dublin, of fewer immigrants attending Catholic national schools than nearby non-Catholic national schools. Even then, one wonders, are most of those immigrants in Catholic schools mainly white, Catholic Eastern Europeans? (Ind4)

It would be so refreshing if Catholic bishops could take an inclusive initiative and embrace multi-denominational education, rather than wait for control of publicly funded schools to be slowly wrestled from their grasp. (Ind4)

it is the poorest Irish who are bearing the brunt of the problem

classroom timebomb

social revolution

cultural identity Northern Ireland, riots in Paris.

Education has a pivotal role to play in supporting social cohesion and alleviating some of the threats of social, religious or ethnic ghettoisation

social cohesion

"all black"

"The Catholic Church, for historical reasons, is over-present in the management of schools in the new Irish demographic."

Equality in education is a key foundation stone for an integrated, inclusive and equal society.

3.4 'Racism'

A severe allegation made in public debate was the creation of "racism" as a result of the primary school enrolment crisis in 2007. This claim emerged when it was revealed that those who had not been granted a place in the already existing schools in Balbriggan were, by coincidence, the children of Irish who were almost exclusively born in Nigeria and other African countries. They, therefore, had black skin colour. In this chapter, I shall analyse how "racism" and other discourses trying to explain the scenario are constructed and used in public debate.

In the coverage of the crisis, a quotation by the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, is frequently cited in which she comments on the emerging scenario of an "all black school":

It might be a skin colour issue, but it's not necessarily a race issue. The nature of Irish society is changing. It's particularly changing in some communities. (e.g. Times1)

At first sight this quotation is incomprehensible. However, what is becoming clear at a closer look is the Minister's need to shift "black" from a category of "race" to the category of "skin colour". She does so, because the category "race" is often used in the context of racism or racial discrimination, like the "black race" is often understood as being discriminated against and disadvantaged. However, the problem in this scenario, if it is a problem, is not the result of discrimination but of (perhaps unfortunate) coincidence. Therefore, all pupils in this class were of black skin colour, however not, because they are of a particular "race". The Minister here attempts to lead the discourse away from a debate on "racism". In the second part of her statement she introduces a variable of locale into the crisis. The statement that Irish society were "particularly changing in some communities" refers to the assumption that the non-ethnic Irish population is concentrated in certain areas of Ireland, namely in suburbs in "North County Dublin". Thus it is very likely that there is a high representation of non-ethnic Irish population in schools of these areas. Through this statement the Minister seeks to reduce the allegation of racism in the Irish education system and declares that this development owes to the fact that many non-ethnic Irish moved into certain areas.

Despite the Minister's attempt to placate the public, the effect of the enrolment crisis caused concern about equality in society. In a very harsh article on the Irish primary school system, written by Colum Kenny for The Irish Independent, concern is expressed at the living conditions of "immigrants":

Whole immigrant populations are being dumped in outer suburbs, and the problems that will result in personal suffering and social unrest are left to another day. (Ind4)

The verb "dump" that is used here implies that the "immigrant populations" are not enough cared for. The passive structure shows that they act nonautonomously and are moved into "outer suburbs" to get rid of them. This statement is superficial and is to frighten people; the author speaks of "whole immigrant populations" without further specifying and speaks of "social unrest", which is pure speculation. In a much more decent article on the crisis, an author for The Irish Times writes:

In a disturbing example of ghettoisation, 70 parents - all of black African origin - gathered to cope with the crisis. (Times7)

Very often in the debate authors both of The Irish Times and The Irish Independent revert to a vocabulary that is usually associated with racial discrimination. Because the scene of people with black skin colour concentrated in a small place evokes the well-known image of racial segregation, the author here uses the word "ghettoisation". Thereby, he or she does not reflect, at least not in the use of vocabulary, the difference between intended and unintended effects. The suggestive power of images also becomes evident when Colum Kenny writes: "a classroom full of only black children in white Ireland is objectively racist" (Ind7). He constructs an over-simplified dichotomy, which is a stark image. "White Ireland" does not stand for the Irish society, but rather for the Irish as a race that is genuinely white. Segregated from this white race is a place that is "full of only black". Thus, the mere appearance of a division of races obviously suffices to name this scenario "objectively racist". To sum up, most authors who use terms like "racism" or "racist" or related concepts just comment on the pure existence of a school whose pupils have almost exclusively a black skin colour. If this effect of the crisis was intended or not is not a category they ponder on.

It is remarkable that the coverage of the primary school enrolment crisis is mainly confined to the "emergency school" in Balbriggan. However, the Department of Education had to found three schools on an emergency basis, the school in Balbriggan and one in Lucan, both of which are under the patronage of Educate Together, and another one in Diswellstown that is run by the Archdiocese of Dublin. The Irish Independent reports on Balbriggan only, while The Irish Times reports at least twice on the "emergency school" in Diswellstown. The coverage of this school is again associated with the kind of composition of the schoolchildren:

The children, largely new Irish with parents from countries including Moldova, Nigeria, Romania, Poland and Colombia (…). (Times3)

These schoolchildren are described by the author as "new Irish" and as a way to describe their ethnic origin the author refers to the nationality of their parents. A reason why this school might not have attracted as much attendance as the "emergency school" in Balbriggan is, firstly, the apparently broader mix of nationalities in this school, which does not allow scandalous exclamations like "racism". Secondly, there has not been any controversy as to the enrolment policy of a denominational school as the patron of this "emergency school" is the Catholic Church itself. One wonders, however, why there is no coverage on the "emergency school" in Lucan. It can only be assumed that there was neither controversy concerning its composition of schoolchildren nor any disintegrative effects due to school's enrolment policy. It seems that there was simply a lack of school places, which was not attractive enough to report on.

It is regretful that the debate surrounding the primary school enrolment crisis is confined to the problem of integration of the non-native Irish population into Irish society. The discussion of a possible remodelling of the Irish primary school system focuses on the problem of embracing the "new Irish" almost exclusively. While this issue is worth thinking about, the discourse described conceals that a remodelling of Irish education is not merely restricted to a distinct area of Ireland, nor to a particular part of its population.

3.5 Are Catholic Schools "inclusive"?

Roughly one week after it emerged that the enrolment policy had the disintegrative effect of refusing admittance of the "new Irish" to school, the discourse in the media developed into a general debate on inclusiveness of primary schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church. This debate was rooted in the common assumption that "Education has a key role to play in the integration of foreign families into Irish life." (Times7). The debate thus largely focuses on the problem of the non-ethnic Irish in society. At the same time, the attitude of the authors of The Irish Times generally is to defend the Catholic Church against criticism. The Irish Independent, however, provides little profound analysis that goes beyond the Balbriggan crisis, and if so, authors are often critical of the Church.

A main argument against which many authors defend the Catholic Church is the assumption that they refused non-ethnic Irish. Breda O'Brian, writing for The Irish Times, counters this argument with the high number of "black, non-Catholic children" that was admitted to the Catholic school in Balbriggan. In addition, she views the controversial enrolment policy of Catholic schools from a different perspective:

Incidentally, siblings of non-Catholic pupils get preference over any new Catholic child with no siblings in the school. (Times9)

She wants to express that Catholic schools usually elevate the principle of cohesion of the family over any alleged "gatekeeping". She counters any allegations of racism when she calls to mind that the concerned school in Balbriggan was the first to admit children of asylum seekers as their pupils:

[T]he much-maligned denominational schools in Balbriggan were asked to take the children of asylum-seekers being housed in Mosney, long before there was a multi-denominational or non-denominational school in the area. (Times9)

In her article she presents a counter-discourse to the seemingly dominant discourse about discrimination against non-Catholic and non-ethnic Irish people by a Catholic school in Balbriggan. This kind of counter-discourse was also presented in an article published in The Irish Independent, however in a much more negative tone:

[H]ow about the enormous numbers of Poles, Nigerians and Filipinos being absorbed into Catholic schools? Muslim parents also commonly favour Catholic schools if there is no available Muslim school because they have a good religious ethos and are single sex. (Ind3)

Although the allegation of discrimination against the "new Irish" is countered, this defence does not express a concern for integration. The "new Irish", named according to their original nationality, are presented here as a burden being "absorbed" into Catholic schools. "Muslims" also prefer Catholic schools, however not because these schools make efforts to integrate them, but because of their general character. The Education Editor of The Irish Times, Seán Flynn, repudiates the discourse in which Catholic schools are commonly presented. He argues that, although currently presented as exclusive, most Catholic schools "have thrown open their doors to newcomer children, as they should, without any question" (Times24). The high emphasis that is put on religious education and practice was also over-estimated, as he writes:

[M]any have learned to adopt a relaxed approach towards teachers, parents and pupils who do not practise or even subscribe to the Catholic faith. (Ibid.)

He entirely rejects the assumption that Catholic schools or denominational schools as such are breeding grounds of discrimination - an image that could have been evoked by the slant that was given to the coverage on education. Primary schools, rather, carry the main burden of integration:

Many newcomer families will say that one of the few places where they have felt welcomed, valued and respected by the Irish State is in primary schools. (Ibid.)

Essential to this counter-discourse is the intention of many authors, at least of the Irish Times, to neutralise the - in their eyes - extremely negative perspective in which Catholic schools and the Catholic Church as such are viewed. They do not necessarily approve of the dominance of denominational institutions in education. Instead, they are aware that the Catholic Church in Ireland has been the target of criticism for many years and opt for a much more balanced coverage. Breda O'Brian argues that "blaming the church for every problem in Ireland is old, tired and unoriginal" (Times9).

3.6 Educational 'apartheid'

The discourse on the crisis of a lack of school places in Balbriggan developed into a discourse about concern for social cohesion. It is argued that the existence of an "emergency school" for almost exclusively non-ethnic Irish pupils:

(…) raises the spectre of a two-tier primary education system, one for native Irish and the other for children of immigrants. (Times7)

This discourse of segregation within the Irish by way of schools is rooted in the assumption that education is the most important method of integrating people into a society. It was caused by, besides the Balbriggan crisis, the plan of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin to release some schools from its control in favour of patrons that provide a more pluralist education. In this way, the Catholic Church seeks to secure the religious character in the teaching of children. This announcement stimulated a discussion about segregation in education and the concern for a "two-tier" system, as it is often called. "Two-tier" implies the existence of two quality standards in education. As the author for The Irish Times argues, a high standard for native Irish and a presumably lower one for non-ethnic Irish pupils. This fear results from the possible future scenario that non-Catholic children, who are mostly children of immigrants, may not be admitted to Catholic schools as these are fewer in number and seek to prefer children of their own faith. Garrett FitzGerald writes for The Irish Times:

[T]hree-quarters of the children of these two ethnic groups [ethnic Africans and ethnic Asians, C.F.] are to be excluded from urban Catholic schools and hived off to new schools in which in many cases they would be likely hugely to outnumber white Irish students, this would create local apartheid of a potentially dangerous kind - which was certainly not [the Archbishop's] intention. (Times10)

He considers well that not all non-ethnic Irish pupils are affected by this new policy of the Catholic Church. The category of division is not "race" but religion. However, most people who cannot certify to be Catholic are non-ethnic Irish. Thus, there is indirect segregation. Non-ethnic schoolchildren would be admitted by more pluralist schools because they do not have a specific enrolment policy. He considers those schools worse because they include more non-ethnic Irish than native Irish pupils. He uses the word "apartheid", which originally signified the former political system of South Africa in which the black and white population were separated on purpose. Even though he may not use it in this sense, it is a very strong expression for the scenario he envisaged here. This discourse is paradoxical regarding the debates that took place on the Balbriggan crisis. Then, the dominance of the Catholic Church was considered to be a danger to integration. Now, a more pluralist system could impede the equality in Irish society. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, is critical of this debate and concerned that:

Integration is not just for the poor. It would be tragic and dangerous if the current debate were to lead parents to consider how they might 'opt out' of integrated education by seeking schools that might not have a broad ethnic mix. (Times25)

The Archbishop here is afraid that "ethnic" Irish parents would use their opportunity to pretend an adherence to the Catholic faith in order to get their children admitted to a school that is free of non-ethnic Irish pupils and thus allegedly better. By his statement he further intensifies this discourse, even though it is not his intention. FitzGerald shares the Archbishop's assumption:

It is all too easy to envisage a situation where the middle class of old Ireland gravitate towards the traditional, well-established Catholic schools (…) (Times10)

It is interesting that he constructs the obviously native Irish population as "old Ireland" and thus as opposite to the frequently used term "new Ireland", which is usually associated with large-scale immigration. The middle class of the native Irish would prefer Catholic schools because they find their class or layer well represented. It is of greater importance that they are 'traditional" and "well-established" than that these deliver Catholic education. Thus, the primary school system is here constructed as a system of different classes or layers of society. Catholic schools would attract middle-class pupils, while the "pluralist" schools function as community schools[ ] which educate the lower classes, which are often non-ethnic Irish. Consequently, the category of religion here serves as a means to separate classes.


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