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Voices of children must be heard – primary school management conference hears

Dr Ken Fennelly, Jacqui Wilkinson, Geraldine O’Connor, Prof David Lankshear, Canon Prof Leslie Francis, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Bishop Kenneth Kearon, Canon Brian O’Rourke, Sean Henry and the Prof Anne Lodge.
Dr Ken Fennelly, Jacqui Wilkinson, Geraldine O’Connor, Prof David Lankshear, Canon Prof Leslie Francis, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Bishop Kenneth Kearon, Canon Brian O’Rourke, Sean Henry and the Prof Anne Lodge.

The importance of listening to the voices of pupils in the education system has been highlighted by the Junior Minister at the Department of Education, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, at the launch of a new project for Church of Ireland primary schools. The Minister was addressing the annual Church of Ireland Primary School Management Association conference which took place at DCU All Hallows Campus on Saturday (March 2).

The 10th annual conference saw the launch of the Student Voice Project in Church of Ireland schools. The project will engage with primary school leaders to explore pupils’ experiences of Christian faith, school ethos and spiritual health in their schools.

Minister Mitchell O’Connor said that the child was at the epicentre of the education system and that the whole purpose of school and the Department of Education and Skills was the education and development of the child. However, she said that often the voice of the pupil was absent.

“This omission is being addressed here today … The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child holds that the child who is capable of forming views has the right to express them,” she stated. “The Student Voice Project seeks to ask children their views on their school and its ethos. This may bring opinions and views that you, as school managers and me, as a policy maker, might find puzzling. Yet if the child is the epicentre of education then this is a voice that needs to be heard. I commend the Church of Ireland in starting this work.”

She hoped that the findings of the project could feed into education policy.

The Minister said that the All Hallows Campus was a fitting environment in which to hold the CIPSMA conference as for generations it had been a place of faith based education. She said she was glad that was continuing but noted that faith based education was not without its critics in today’s Ireland.

She said she, along with hundreds of thousands of others, owed their education to faith based schools. Church of Ireland schools offered something different to education in Ireland, she stated, adding that pluralism and living together was held dear.

“I know that your schools are highly diverse. This diversity has been a characteristic of your schools for generations and they are respected for that,” she told the school teachers and managers present.

Student voice project

Canon Prof Leslie Francis and Prof David Lankshear of the University of Warwick gave the background and outlined the findings of the Student Voice Project which was devised for use in the Church of England and the Church in Wales.

Canon Francis said the challenge was to display the distinctiveness of church schools to people outside the church. “If you want to know about schools, then the best people to ask are the students in the schools,” he commented. It was from this premise that the Student Voice Project grew and was undertaken in schools under the patronage of the Church in Wales.

The three year project aimed to provide an annual report to the Church in Wales, to provide an annual report to each participating school to set alongside their provincial reports and to aid self evaluation, and to contribute to academic debate and stimulate serious thinking to inform policy and practice. Through their project they hoped to discover the students’ attitudes to Christianity, their spiritual health and school related attitudes.

Irish context

Jacqui Wilkinson of the Church of Ireland Centre at DCU talked about bringing the thinking of the Welsh project into an Irish context. She said that Church of Ireland schools occupied a small niche here but there was value in the project for the wider education system. She added that the project was important at a time when so many schools were looking at the issue of ethos.

She said she had carried out some research in Cork and the work had provoked conversation about ethos. She said she would be sending out questionnaires to 171 schools as part of her research at the University of Warwick. Urging schools to take part, she said the questions are aimed at 5th and 6th classes and the results would benefit each school and school patrons as well as the state as a whole.

“We need to hear from schools and value the student voice. It is really worth listening to the voices of students. There is a lot we can do with the information,” she said.

Unpacking ethos

The theme of this year’s CIPSMA conference was ‘Who are we? Accounting for Ethos!’ and Bishop Kenneth Kearon (Limerick and Killaloe) and Sean Henry, PhD candidate at Maynooth University, unpacked the issue of ethos.

Bishop Kearon said that part of his role as a patron of Church of Ireland schools was to talk about ethos but he noted that there was no one snappy statement on the ethos of Church of Ireland schools.

He said that most ethos statements include the words ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’. “I ask if these are the sorts of phrases that a marketing expert would suggest to sell schools to parents or are they values that we as a church would like to see expressed in the ethos of our schools,” the Bishop observed. “These words are more important than ever. The words are used in the ethos statements of nearly every school, not just Church of Ireland schools.”

I believe that Church of Ireland schools represent diversity in the system. It is not just about providing education to primarily Protestant children and filling up the remaining places with children of other faiths. There is a deeper role in ensuring diversity is present.

He continued: “It used to be easy. There were just Catholic and Church of Ireland or Protestant schools. They just had to ensure that they were different enough to represent choice. But choice is more complex today. So what is the Church of Ireland commitment to diversity? I believe that Church of Ireland schools represent diversity in the system. It is not just about providing education to primarily Protestant children and filling up the remaining places with children of other faiths. There is a deeper role in ensuring diversity is present.”

He said he would expect ethos statements to mention the individual rights of children and a realistic commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, “not because Irish society expects it but because it is part of what we are as members of the Church of Ireland”.

Education comes through encounter with difference

Sean Henry continued the theme. He said that in trying to establish an ethos, on one hand there was an effort to determine the distinctiveness of a community while on the other, the body of the school was made up of people for whom faith had little meaning. He asked in what ways Church of Ireland schools were diverse and if responding to diversities was important to Church of Ireland schools.

He suggested that the word ethos pointed to an understanding of living that involved living with and being taught by others who are different to us. He stated that education does not happen through an encounter with sameness but through an encounter with difference. So if a school espouses a diverse ethos it is committing to creating a space where pupils can become virtuous by encounter with the other, he said, adding that this moves away from the idea that ethos is a fixed code that must be followed. It is a bottom up understanding of ethos.

“So a Church of Ireland school does not assume that everyone in it is Church of Ireland. Nor does it expect present or future belonging to the Church of Ireland. This does not mean that the traditions of the Church of Ireland are not valuable to pass on. Ethos in this meaning is a very humble commitment,” he explained.

Report and photo by Lynn Glanville, Dublin and Glendalough Communications Officer.

Board of Education (RI)

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 Skills 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
Church of Ireland House
Church Avenue
Rathmines
Dublin 6
D06 CF67
+353 (0)1 4125 609

ken.fennelly@rcbdub.org