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Change and redevelopment in Protestant secondary schools

DCU seminar hears the history of Protestant comprehensive schools

A recent seminar, co–hosted by the Church of Ireland Centre at DCU and the Educational Studies Association of Ireland (ESAI), helped to tell part of the story of the establishment and evolution of Protestant comprehensives and encourage more interest in this area of school life in today’s Ireland.

Speaking at the event at Dublin City University’s Purcell House on Friday, 27th October, Dr Ken Fennelly, who serves as Secretary to the General Synod’s Board of Education, shared a story of three parts from his own PhD research into the history of Protestant boarding schools:

1. Before – how education policy developed in the 1950s;
2. During – closures, amalgamations, mergers and moves in the 1960s;
3. After – the emergence of new and enlarged schools.

Irish post–primary education in the first full decade after the Second World War was characterised by a classical curriculum, limited second level attendance and transfer into third–level education, a division between technical and academic schools, fee–charging, and poorly maintained buildings.

Dr Ken Fennelly.
Dr Ken Fennelly.

Some indicators of change were already apparent by 1955 with endowments dwindling or being impacted by inflation, limited school sizes with denominational boundaries limiting the ability to grow the income from fees, and reduced grants from the State.

The employment of non–Protestant teachers became a necessity due to demographic change and, by 1960, State grants for meeting building costs were only available to schools with more than 150 students.

All of this was increasingly discussed in the pages of the Church of Ireland Gazette and at General Synod, which established an Advisory Committee on Second Level Education in 1962.  This comprised key figures in industry, business, economics and the Church – and Methodist, Presbyterian and Quaker counterparts – and the status of its members played a major role in persuading schools to change.  They also had access to research into Irish education undertaken by the OECD, and education and economic development become linked in the minds of the Church of Ireland’s leadership.

Change was also happening elsewhere in the Church with the number of its primary schools decreasing from 500 in early 1960s to 200 in the early 1980s, with amalgamations being highly dependent on school transport services.  The Administration report brought to General Synod in 1967 arose from much debate about the Church’s structures and resourcing.

The Advisory Committee’s report in 1965 – “a red line year for change” – affirmed what schools had achieved with inadequate funding and facilities but stated that “unless radical steps are taken immediately, the present schools will not be able to provide our children with an education equal to that available to the rest of the nation, or up to European standards.”

The appointment of Dr Kenneth Milne as the first full–time Secretary of the Board of Education, in February 1963, led to the Church having a major resource in the negotiations on school mergers and amalgamations and also the dealt to deliver a block grant for Protestant secondary students.  Even before regional meetings in 1965 and 1966 to consider change, several schools were exploring and acting on the possibility of merging and rebuilding.

With a scattered population, boarding was considered essential not just for continuing to provide education with a Church of Ireland (or other Protestant) ethos but also for the minority community’s social cohesion.  It was agreed that grant aid could be used to subsidise boarding fees but the cost of providing boarding accommodation was regarded by the Department of Education as a private concern; some schools borrowed significantly to provide boarding facilities.

“When the Protestant Block Grant was negotiated,” Dr Fennelly remarked, “it kind of put the wind in the sails of the comprehensive schools because the secondary schools could come together and amalgamate, and they had a funding structure in place.”

The overall number of Protestant second level schools decreased from 46 in 1960 to 25 by 1980 although two would open subsequently – East Glendalough in 1983 and Temple Carrig, in Greystones, in 2012.

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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