Méid an Téacs

Coláiste Eoin row: Schools need to respond on parents’ concerns

Eanáir 29, 2015

Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan, Dublin, is accustomed to grabbing headlines for topping school league tables, and picking up awards in science and GAA. Its alumni include Abbey Theatre director Fiach Mac Conghail, High Court judge Colm Mac Eochaidh and comedian Dara Ó Briain. But in the last 24 hours it has found itself at the centre of a very negative social media storm.

Its postponement of a workshop for students aimed at combating homophobic bullying has drawn much criticism, including from Ó Briain, who said on Twitter shortly after the story broke on Tuesday: “It looks pretty clumsy and ill-judged. A pity, since I gather they had been doing well on issues like this.”

The LGBT awareness group ShoutOut said one of its workshop leaders had been told the event had been called off “because the board of management had decided that both sides of the argument should be given”.

However, a new complexion has since been put on the story with the issuing of a statement by the school. It said the board of management had received “written communications from a number of parents outlining their concerns regarding the workshop”. In this context “it was incumbent on the board to address all issues and to seek the advice available from Catholic management representative bodies available to secondary schools”.

In short, the postponement was triggered by parents and not the board, and the school had little choice but to respond to these concerns.

No strict guidelines

There are no strict guidelines for managing external speakers in schools but best practice decrees parents would be informed in advance.

According to experienced principals, problems can arise if a teacher invites in a speaker without informing management. But ShoutOut said it had given similar workshops in this school in previous years.

There have been occasional controversies about schools inviting speakers showing graphic anti-abortion images or advocating unorthodox sex education against parents’ wishes.

The Joint Managerial Body, which represents two-thirds of voluntary secondary schools, runs annual workshops for boards of management.

Experienced principals said it was rare for boards to seek outside advice on external visitors and generally this related to workshops’ quality.

However, they said sometimes speakers would be advised to “tone down” or adapt presentations where there was a potential conflict with parental values.

Under departmental rules, a school board “must uphold the characteristic spirit [ethos] of the school and is accountable to the patron for so doing”.

From a management perspective, the key thing is to “avoid surprises”, according to one official. “You want to know well in advance who is coming in and what exactly the presentation is about.”