A Shared Future
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Submission to Ms Maria Eagle, MP
Minister with Responsibility for Education
October 7th 2006

 Submission from Catholic Trustees

The Context

1. The majority of Northern Ireland schools are not currently in the ownership of the State. Only 43% attend ‘controlled schools’ while the 550 Catholic Managed schools serve 45% of the school going population. This reality needs to be kept clearly in mind in the context of the outworking of the RPA.

2. The Trustees of the Catholic-managed schools – both Maintained and Voluntary Grammar – are therefore the major stakeholder in the educational sector.

3. These Trustees – both bishops and religious - hold the schools in trust for the parents, who through the parish and religious communities set them up, and who, down through the decades, invested huge amounts of money.
 
4. European and International Human Rights documentation make clear the right of parents to choose the form of education that they wish for their children. The right of the Trustees to enable parents to exercise these rights, must be respected and supported by Government.

5. Catholic schools – despite the widespread caricature to the contrary – do not simply seek to offer a quality education to and for Catholics alone. Rather they offer a specific form of education, with its own philosophy, and this is accessible to anyone of any faith background or none. Catholic schools are as committed as any other sector to working for a reconciled pluralist society and a shared future here.
 
6. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools has been the professional arm of the Trustees for maintained schools. As such it has provided an excellent service to both Trustees and the Department of Education. Its work has been accompanied by a consistent rise in the quality of education in Maintained schools. It has done this by
a. Supporting Governors, leaders and staff in maintained schools to develop their specific identity and contribution;
b. Assisting Governors in the appointment of high quality staff;
c. Assisting Trustees in the matter of providing new schools or rationalising current provision;
d. Advising Trustees, DE and other bodies in regards to consultations about key educational developments and policy;
e. Supporting all involved in Maintained schools to develop their particular identity, ethos and contribution to the common good.
f. Raising standards.

Specific Needs
7. If Catholic schools are to be enabled to maintain the highest quality of educational provision – and that quality is fully acknowledged by DE statistics - within the context of their distinct ethos, Trustees will need a structure to support their work in the following areas:

a. Ethos role. This involves supporting Governors, school leaders and staff in developing their distinct ethos and type of education. There is a recognition that ethos adds value and provides a key means for realising a Shared Future. As in other jurisdictions, a clear faith- based ethos in NI will make a major contribution to the common good in a pluralist society. Government assurance has been repeatedly given that ethos will be protected. The Trustees have the responsibility to develop the overall vision for the Catholic sector. They have already invested heavily in developing the vision for Catholic education . They now require support to sustain their ethos in the following areas:
  Preparation and dissemination of the key materials;
  Identification and support of Governors, for strong Boards of Governors are  essential;
  Contribution to the development of RE programmes of study within the statutory curriculum, and associated training programmes;
  Leading, managing and supporting the distinctive contribution of the Catholic sector to the realisation of a Shared Future;
  Developing the Catholic sector’s indispensable contribution to other Government priority areas such as TSN, community cohesion, excellence in educational outcomes, young people at risk, citizenship etc.

b.  Employer Role. It must be recognised that ethos and the employment of staff are inextricably linked. Trustees require assurance that the development of schemes of employment and the recruitment process – especially as regards senior staff – are such that will ensure a clear commitment to promoting the clearly articulated philosophy, aims and ethos of Catholic schools.  This could be accomplished through a statutory committee within the ESA, providing support to all Catholic schools. Clarity is required on the employing authority/ employer relationship.

c. Planning role. It must be recognised that the Trustees are the legal owners of the Catholic schools. In this role they require the capacity to plan, consult and negotiate with their parish communities, Governors and school managers on all aspects of school development, reorganisation and rationalisation. Trustees recognise that there must also be a stage in the planning process whereby they share and, if necessary, reconcile their proposals with those of other school providers. However, final decisions about planning proposals can only be done through a neutral body. The proposed role of the ESA in the area of planning and rationalisation raises concerns for the Trustees as the ESA will in fact be the owner of all schools in the controlled sector.

d. Stakeholder role. The Trustees require the professional support body to advise them in responding and contributing to Government policy development. The support body will also enable the Trustees to provide advice/ guidance to the Minister, DE, ESA, Governors and Principals.

e. Challenge and Intervention. The raising of school standards may sometimes require challenge and intervention. These reside within the remit of school governance and ownership. The Trustees must be involved in this process through their support body.

8. If the Trustees are not given this necessary professional support, this will be seen by many as undermining both the Trustees who are the largest provider of schools in NI and the community that values them highly.

9. It is vital that any support provided by Government to bodies which offer or co-ordinate the provision of education in NI (Catholic Trustees, NICIE and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta) should reflect the relative size of the respective sectors. 

10. Arrangements should be put in place to ensure that there is ongoing consultation between the Minister and his/her officials, and the Trustees and our present advisers.

[1] Life to the Full (1996); Proclaiming the Mission and  Building Peace, Shaping the Future (2001); ThePromoting Reconciliation through Education – the Contribution of Catholic Schools’ Conference (2005) Diversity and Inclusion in Catholic Maintained Schools, (2006); Catholic Education. The Vision, (2006)