Considering the critical role parents play in the education of their children, and how that role is underpinned by the constitution, parents collectively have had relatively little influence in shaping primary education.
For decades, principals and teachers have been suspicious of enthusiastic parents or parent associations and it was not unusual for schools to have a closed-door policy when it came to parental relationships. In contrast, one of the hallmarks of a successful principal today is his/her ability to constructively involve parents in school life. While there have been some examples of groups of parents campaigning for specific causes such as the Irish language, children with autism and multi-denominational education, the ‘ordinary decent parent’ has been largely silent and compliant with the status quo. But the status quo is no longer an option.
A number of coinciding factors may create a tipping point that will lead to greater influence by parents nationally. An IPPN study of 500 boards of management found that parents are sceptical of the boards’ roles. Many parents feel they are only there to make up the numbers and are excluded from decision-making. Parent associations are equally sceptical, feeling in the majority of cases that they are expected to act mainly as fundraisers to fill the growing gap between State funding and the operational costs of schools.
Perhaps the most significant event that will place parents centre-stage is the national debate on school patronage and the obligation to provide a more inclusive and practical approach to dealing with diversity. Parents will, for the first time, be given a major say in how schools will adapt to change. Evidence suggests that there is growing demand for ‘secular’ schools run by the State or local authority. However, the same research shows that parents want teachers to prepare their children for religious sacraments and other liturgical events. Is this simply a matter of convenience? Perhaps the paradox is a side-effect of how teachers and clergy have unintentionally ‘spoiled’ parents for generations. They have assumed that parents were happy to leave faith formation and religious instruction to the parish and the school.
Ironically, this assumption may also be a key factor in why so many young teenagers have disengaged from religious practice because they only associate it with their days in primary school with no real link to the family. For many years, parish clergy came into schools to bless throats, hand out miraculous medals and hear confession. This was done with the best intentions – but perhaps not the intended results. Parents were bypassed in terms of decision-making, reduced to spectators at their child’s confirmation.
With parents at such a remove, who is teaching religion to 21st century children? The social profile of primary teachers is no different from their peers. Although not yet widespread, anecdotally the number of teachers who are uncomfortable about teaching religion is growing. From any perspective, it is not a good idea to require such teachers to teach anyone religion, not least to children. This challenge is compounded by the rapid decline in clergy able to provide a chaplaincy role in visiting classrooms, supporting teachers and engaging with children.
These changes may well lead to a tipping point where clergy and parents who have a faith conviction will decide to be proactive in dealing with the reality of 21st century society. This may well result in significantly fewer numbers of children and parents practising their faith. However, it may remove the illusion of widespread religious engagement, leaving a smaller but far stronger community-based church. Maybe one positive consequence of dramatic societal change will be a direct involvement of more parents in the moral and spiritual development of their children.