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‘But that’s a whole other story’

DCU seminar hears the history of Protestant comprehensive schools

An audience gathered at Dublin City University’s Purcell House recently to explore the unique story of the five Irish Protestant comprehensive schools and how they sit within the context of education in Ireland and further afield.

The purpose of this event, on Friday, 27th October, which was co–hosted by the Church of Ireland Centre at DCU and the Educational Studies Association of Ireland (ESAI), was to tell part of the story of the establishment and evolution of the comprehensives – a theme that has tended not to be the primary focus in histories written to date.

Dr Peter Murray.
Dr Peter Murray.

NUI Maynooth lecturer Dr Peter Murray outlined the post–war development of Irish post–primary education, noting that this was initially left to the “private enterprise” of school managers, in comparison with Northern Ireland where mass secondary education was rolled out following the Education Act 1947.

In the early 1960s, less than one in five schoolchildren in the State were completing secondary education.  Many thinly populated areas were “unequally served” and the early lay Catholic schools in these places were “a sort of canary in the Irish secondary schooling coalmine”.  Scattered populations and the absence of transport provision made viability difficult without adequate state support.

As Taoiseach, Seán Lemass prioritised improving the quality of life on small western farms which led to the Comprehensive Post–Primary Education Pilot Scheme related to Small Farm areas being brought forward in 1963.  Starting with the premise that families with children would not stay in these communities without educational opportunities, the Government proposed providing larger school units which could provide a much wider curriculum with an emphasis on science, maths and modern continental European languages.

In the same year, education was brought into economic planning through the second Programme for Economic Expansion.  All of these changes were influenced by the international economics of education movement which arose from the Marshall Plan and was given a major boost by the ‘Sputnik shock’ – everyone in the West now wanted to catch with perceived Soviet progress.

At the OECD’s Washington Conference on economic growth and investment in education, Ireland was suggested as a pilot study on long–term education needs in developed countries.  The resulting 1965 Investment in Education report, he noted, confirmed that spending in education was “an investment in which we can expect to get a good return and that gives education a major leg–up in terms of how it’s seen.”

Professor Jim Gleeson.
Professor Jim Gleeson.

Professor Jim Gleeson from the School of Policy and Practice at DCU, spoke on the establishment of comprehensives which owed much to the pragmatic approach of Dr Patrick Hillery, Minister of Education from 1959 to 1965 (and later Uachtarán na hÉireann).  Dr Hillery found that the Department of Education was “essentially inert” but the crucial support of Seán Lemass helped him to quietly deliver reform.

His initial focus was on comprehensive courses, leading on to the 1963 policy in favour of developing a comprehensive, non–selective, post–primary day school model with 150 to 400 pupils per school.  Students would progress to a secondary or vocational school at the age of 16.  The first three comprehensives were opened in 1966 – An Cheathrú Rua (in Galway), Cootehill, and Shannon.

Catholic bishops remained influential by securing the denominational ethos of the first comprehensives whereas the Department saw the potential enrolment of many more pupils in these new schools and the possibility of more mixed–gender education as successes.

The event concluded with a panel discussion, chaired by Bishop Adrian Wilkinson, and attendees also had the chance to review old school photos and ledgers.

Further reports to follow.

The Board of Education (Republic of Ireland) represents the Church of Ireland in all educational matters applying to the State, including as an education partner with the Department of Education and other educational bodies.  It also supports religious education in primary schools under Protestant management and provides support, training and advice to primary level patrons and boards of management.

Dr Ken Fennelly

Secretary, Board of Education (RI)
Church of Ireland House
Church Avenue
Dublin 6
D06 CF67
+353 (0)1 4125 609



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