18 May 2016 - Speech by Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education & Skills at the 2016 Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools Forum


Today’s theme of partnership provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the ways in which policy is created within the education domain in Ireland. And I am delighted to take this opportunity to talk to you about how we in the Department see partnership and the inevitable frictions and difficulties that can arise in, what I would say, is a generally successful method of working.

I am joined by my colleagues Martin Hanevy and Alan Wall and we are all looking forward to taking part in the panel discussion.

Social Partnership

The late Eighties was a troubled time in Ireland. Government adopted a Social Partnership approach to resolving national issues. All facets of society attended a series of fora in which social difficulties could be moderated. The success of the model was predicated on the State steering a network of stakeholders towards moderated outcomes which were for the common good. While not above criticism, Social Partnership was recognised internationally as a successful method of ensuring broad representation in agenda setting, policy development and implementation.

Arising out of this broader social partnership model, the Education Sector knowingly replicated the notion of partnership within its own domain; most explicitly in the 1993 National Education Convention which led to the White Paper for Education, which in turn has led to many of the education reforms we have seen over the last two decades. More importantly, although the formal social partnership is not with us today, its legacy is a network of partners which continue to represent  their  interest in the policy domain and the Department’s role in steering the network towards moderated ends for the public good.

For the Department, this means a high level of engagement with significant non-governmental stakeholders across a diverse range of issues. Policy development within the confines of programmes for government, arises from this interaction between officials at all levels and this stable network of players

Partnership for the Department

The Department in this context is the steward of Education, but not the only one. It is the key resource in the education domain, but not the only one. It is the sponsor of policy change and implementation, but not the only one.

Education is a shared responsibility, by all the stakeholders in the network. The Department leads but consults, the State has an obligation to push this network and this network has a responsibility to push the State, all working with the shared objective of improving outcomes for students at all levels and in the broadest way.

But the Department and the State has another role in the network. For the stability of this network is not just its greatest strength, but also a potential weakness.

New Voices New Choices

The Education Sector in Ireland has been characterised at Primary level by homogeneity of patronage provision and at Second Level by a somewhat greater choice of models. There is an increased political desire for greater choice of provision of ethos and patronage at both primary and second level, but the issue is felt particularly at primary.  

The education network that I have referred to has to accommodate this. The Department has to be alive to these issues and the partnership model is only successful when the greatest range of interested parties can be heard. This challenges all of us to accommodate the plurality of representation within the network and in a meaningful way.

For the Department there is the problem of limited resources and of trying to moderate competing demands. For bodies such as yourselves, there is a need to coordinate and speak with one voice on these issues, but also a need to demonstrate generosity of spirit towards those with whom you might disagree. This is the friction I mentioned earlier. But remember this friction is useful and has served the domain well, because by overcoming disagreement we have helped forge together a better system for our young people.

Programme for Government

The Programme for a Partnership Government requires that 400 schools provide non- or multi-denominational education by 2030. I believe that this is achievable. But we need to engage with you on this issue to speed up divestment. We all need understanding that facilitating a choice of ethical provision across the system strengthens the Catholic ethos as a pluralist option and does not attack it, since plurality means Catholic too. And we need to find mechanisms between us that speed up divesting and answer the needs of others within the Network. This is what real partnership will mean.


Catholic involvement at second level

In the history of provision at second level, Catholic schools established and managed by dioceses, religious orders and indeed individual Catholic lay persons were crucial in giving life chances to thousands over many decades and must be fully acknowledged.

When the State moved to establish comprehensive schools followed by community schools and expanded the number of VEC schools the Catholic Church continued to play a significant role in those State established schools and secured roles in the governance of many of them. This is understandable given that at the time the models were created and agreed the overwhelming majority of those coming in the gates of the new models of second level school were Catholic students and not just in name but also in practice.

The models developed are interesting in that the Catholic involvement in patronage of community schools and its role in governance in designated ETB community college has bishops and religious orders required to participate in running schools that are multi-denominational.

It is understandable how many people would consider the community schools as Catholic schools. Yet the Deed of Trust does not bestow any right to give priority enrolment to Catholics in the way a voluntary denominational school can. The school must serve the community however composed.  There is an obligation to enrol regardless of faith tradition or none.   Furthermore the religious education or worship to be provided is not determined by the wishes of a patron but the obligation in the Deed to provide for the religious needs of those who actually attend the school. A comparable set of obligations applies in designated ETB community colleges.

For a long time the religious profile of the population meant that de facto the schools could operate in a manner comparable to a Catholic voluntary school. Effectively the interests of Catholic trustees in community schools were symbiotic with the mandate of the school to serve the student body.

The rapid change brought about by the new Irish in terms of religious denomination and different faiths traditions, allied to a decrease in religious belief and practice, challenges community schools and community colleges to reflect on how the operation of the school needs to change as the composition of the student body renders the school de facto multi-denominational not just multi-denominational de jure.

This does not mean the schools cannot continue to serve the needs of its Catholic students, rather it means that the they must consult  parents and students about such matters as religious education and worship and assess demand  rather than continue to assume that all students should participate.  The schools need to prepare for situations where a majority of students may wish to withdraw and where religious instruction and worship may be required by a minority, if at all.

There is a deeper conversation to be had about how ethos or characteristic spirit is determined in a community school and framed by the ETB and the Catholic co-patrons where the wishes and needs of the community that the school serves have changed and when the student body may be increasingly secular in outlook.  I am sure ATCS will have an interest in reflecting on this contributing to how the new reality is addressed in the daily life of the schools.


Funding for schools

I will also refer to the funding of schools.

The last budget marked hopefully a turning point in relation to providing resources for schools with additional funding allowing for some reversal of the cutbacks made in the crisis period. The improvements were limited to the provision of additional teachers through a change in the staffing schedule for primary schools and an allocation for guidance and improved support for deputy principal posts in post-primary schools. It did not prove possible to make any improvement to capitation funding for schools or the grants to the management bodies including JMB, CPSMA and ACCS.  Capitation reduced by an overall 11% and annual funding would need to increase by €40 million to restore capitation and related grants to pre-2011 levels.

I am aware that for Catholic post-primary schools and indeed all voluntary secondary schools the equalisation of funding between sectors is a concern. Until the downturn, the policy of equalisation was pursued through successive annual superior improvements to the support services funding given to your schools which decreased the gap year on year. While the policy objective of achieving equalisation in funding remained in place the instrument for achieving it ceased to be available from 2011 as cuts in capitation replaced increases.  In the period of retrenchment equalisation would have involved deeper cuts for ETB schools and most likely community schools as well. While this was identified as an option it was not proceeded with. If funding comes available for improving capitation rates then the mechanism of giving differential rate increases by sector can be applied again.

Analysis done in the Department suggests that the extent of the remaining funding gap between sectors may not be as great as has been suggested  and any future adjustments would also have to take account of existing preferential treatment of community schools.  Further work will be needed to inform any potential funding decisions.

There is one identifiable and clear disparity between your voluntary secondary schools and the other two sectors. The deduction from capitation of an amount to cover the historic teacher salary grant is unique to voluntary secondary schools and therefore no comparators or detailed analysis is required to justify or quantify a change. For that reason in an exchange of correspondence the Department agreed with the JMB that at the point where funding comes available for equalisation it should be applied towards eliminating the salary grant.

The fiscal crisis turned the spotlight on the need to deliver services in the most cost efficient way and avoiding duplication.  As a result across government Departments there are now shared services for payroll and aspects of HR. In the Education Sector we are developing shared payroll and financial services to serve the 16 ETBs.  A shared procurement service for schools is being developed in conjunction with the JMB. More recently in moving to provide financial guidance for all primary schools the JMB based FSSU is being expanded rather than create a separate service in CPSMA or in any of the other primary management bodies. Increasingly the Department’s capacity to secure funds for new initiatives to support school governance will be contingent on delivery happening through shared services. All calls for improved funding to support schools will have to be tested for efficiency and avoiding duplication. Proposals that come to the Department that reflect the move to shared services are more likely to get greater consideration.


In conclusion, thank you again for the opportunity to be with you today and we look forward to the panel discussion.