Text size

Training teachers the Catholic way

April 24, 2012

AT THE CEREMONY for his inauguration as president of Mary Immaculate College of Education, one of the largest primary-teacher training colleges in the State, the Rev Prof Michael Hayes gave a speech that had many of those present, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn included, shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

A clear challenge to the increasing perception of the need for more secular education, Hayes’s speech referred to the college’s Mercy tradition as an “essential part of our identity”. He went on to say, “So if, as the president of this Catholic college, I call on us all to come to a sharper, more explicit awareness of the college’s Catholic identity, then, as a community, it will challenge all of us to look at our own preconceptions and take on the difficult work of exploring together what this college is.”

The professor mentioned children, teaching and teachers 16 times. He said the word Catholic 28 times. It caused consternation among many of those present and was seen as a pointed shot across the Minister’s bow.

Quinn has been openly critical of the strong focus on religion in Mary Immaculate’s teacher-training programme. In 2010 the college was criticised by the Teaching Council, which monitors professional standards, for spending too much time teaching religion, noting that subjects such as science, history and geography were allotted 12 hours each in contrast to the 48 hours allotted to religious education.

The appointment of Hayes was the subject of much discussion at the Department of Education in Dublin. Originally from Limerick, he was educated at St Patrick’s College, in Maynooth, and the University of London; he received his PhD from the University of Surrey. He is the editor of the international Pastoral Review journal, taught in the department of theology and religious studies at Roehampton University, in London, and was vice-principal and professor of Catholic pastoral studies at St Mary’s University College, also in London, where he is still a visiting professor.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Fr Hayes said: “Mary Immaculate is not an institution run solely by Catholics for Catholics, but the institution functions in a Catholic context”. The Catholic ethos of the college means the “starting point is that we begin with the dignity of the human person as a child of God who is called to flourish in the world’’.

Teacher education is fully denominational at undergraduate level in this country. There are four Catholic colleges (and one that caters to the Church of Ireland sector). They are publicly funded, but the Catholic Church retains control.

Mary Immaculate, for example, is managed by a board of trustees: the Most Rev Dermot Clifford, archbishop of Cashel Emly; Sr Peggy Collins, Congregration of the Sisters of Mercy (CSM); Sr Breda Coman, CSM; Sr Thomasina Finn, CSM; Richard B Haslam; Very Rev Tony Mullins, administrator of the diocese of Limerick; Most Rev William Murphy, bishop of Kerry; and Margaret O’Brien.

These trustees appoint the governing body of the college, which controls all affairs of the college, including appointments. The trustees also appoint the president of the college. Posts in two areas – religious education, and theology and religious studies – are also subject to approval by the trustees.

This is despite the fact that the college is funded through the Higher Education Authority, apart from a small additional amount of money it receives through student fees and research grants. It received €18 million from the exchequer in 2011.

St Patrick’s in Drumcondra, Dublin, the other large college of education, is managed by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. He entrusts the management of the college, including academic appointments, to the governing body. However, he appoints the members of the governing body and retains the right to make appointments to the religious-studies and religious-education departments. St Pat’s is largely funded by the taxpayer; it received €14 million last year. Its president, Pauric Travers, says: “We are very aware that we are a publicly funded institution. We are committed to serving the needs of all schools. We’re introducing a postgraduate certificate in ethics and education aimed at providing training for teachers working in Educate Together schools.

“We haven’t had issues, at least on an official level, with students being unhappy with the choice on offer. Of course that’s easy for me to say. But we have always supported students. Our job is to prepare teachers for Irish schools. The education landscape is changing, and we will evolve with that.”

Of the two smaller Catholic colleges, Froebel College of Education appears to have been the canniest. Next year it will move from Sion Hill, in Blackrock in south Co Dublin, to the campus at NUI Maynooth. Significantly, the move will see the Dominican Sisters, who founded and built up the college at a time of limited State resources, divest their trusteeship. It will become the first secular, publicly funded college of education in the Republic.

Coláiste Mhuire, in Marino in Dublin, on the other hand, looks more vulnerable. In January Trinity College became a cotrustee, along with the Congregation of Christian Brothers. The trustees appoint the governing body of the college. At the time of going to press, Christian Brother nominees still hold a majority on the governing board, but the new instrument of governance is expected to shift the balance of power towards Trinity College nominees.

Marino’s involvement in curriculum design for the VEC sector seems to possibly position it to train teachers for the new VEC primary community school sector. Or the college may shift its focus toward the booming Gaelscoileanna sector.

For now Marino is staying with tradition: it is the only training college in the State that has not allowed the multidenominational patronage body Educate Together to address its students about its ethics-education curriculum.

Teacher training is in flux, with the colleges adjusting to a new four year bachelor of education degree from next September.

The Hunt Report on the third-level sector may be another catalyst for change. It promotes the integration of small independent colleges with larger institutes in an effort to cut costs. At present, training a student in one of the smaller colleges is significantly more expensive.

Added to the mix is the online Hibernia College, which is training teachers at postgraduate level at no cost to the State, with none of the religious interests that currently oversee the colleges of education.

All of these factors mean that the colleges of education are engaging in a quiet jostling for position as each tries to carve out its individual niche. All of them, given the current state of affairs, know they need to justify their continued existence as individual institutions.

Some see Hayes’s speech as a signal that Mary Immaculate is willing to be the Catholic college in a segregated future for teacher education.

Student voices

Tara is a recent graduate from St Patrick’s College. She does not wish her real name to be published.

“I went to a multidenominational school. When I went into teacher training, I presumed it would be progressive, like primary education, but I was shocked at the amount of time that religious education took up on the timetable.

“The compulsory religious-education module was taught from a strong Catholic perspective. Many of the lecturers used to emphasise what ‘we as Catholics’ believe.

“It was taken for granted that everybody was a Catholic. It’s astonishing that, in order to get a job as a public servant, you have to espouse or pretend to espouse beliefs that are not your own or you endorse yourself. The cert is nominally optional, but it is strongly implied that if you don’t study it you will not get a job in a Catholic school. That’s over 90 per cent of schools.

“I ultimately decided not to pursue a career in teaching despite securing very high marks. I was worried sick that I’d get second or sixth class and have to prepare them for their Communion or Confirmation when I wasn’t raised as a Catholic and don’t have religious beliefs.”

Religious iconography is dotted around both the Mary Immaculate and St Pat’s campuses. Last year a statue of St Patrick the Teacher was erected and blessed on St Patrick’s campus following a Mass at the chapel.

Another student, currently at Mary Immaculate College has another view. “There are probably a few more crucifixes than in other places, and Mass is celebrated regularly, but very few actually attend it. If you are going to be annoyed by the mere presence of these religious tokens, yes, you will be annoyed in Mary I. But nobody, in my experience at least, has been forced to pretend they are Catholic or otherwise.

“If pressure is coming from anywhere for a student to pretend they are Catholic, it’s from primary schools themselves. People pretending to be Catholic are doing so because they know that when they graduate they will be hunting for jobs in Catholic schools.”

Patronage report

The report of the advisory group to the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector made a number of recommendations in terms of teacher education.

First, it recommended that colleges provide a broadly based religious-methodology programme that prepares students to teach religion in a variety of school settings. This would not be compulsory for students with conscientious objections.

Second, it says a course focused on ethics, morality and world religions should be compulsory for all students.

To date, St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra is the only Catholic training college that has introduced an ethics-in-education module as an alternative to religious education.

But take-up is very poor. Essentially, students who take the course are unable to complete the certificate in religious education required by many Catholic schools. With more than 90 percent of schools under Catholic control, most students, with a eye to job prospects, see the ethics as irrelevant to their needs.

As of next year, however, students at St Pat’s and at Mary Immaculate College, in Limerick, will have a choice of religious education, ethics education or both.

Questions remain about who will deliver the ethics modules. Will it be the philosophy departments or the religion departments?

If I call on us all to come to a sharper, more explicit awareness of the college’s Catholic identity, then it will challenge all of us to look at our preconceptions.