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Church of Ireland Synod: Governors of church schools feel the strain

24 May 2024

Tim Wyatt reports from the Church of Ireland Synod in Armagh

Children’s and Families Ministry staff, Rachael Murphy and Peter Hamill, with the Bishop of Connor, the Rt Revd George Davison

Children’s and Families Ministry staff, Rachael Murphy and Peter Hamill, with the Bishop of Connor, the Rt Revd George Davison

THE growing strains faced by governors and boards of management of church schools on both sides of the border were lamented as the Synod received the latest report from the Boards of Education.

Canon Malcolm Kingston (Armagh) introduced the report from the Board of Education in Northern Ireland. The Board, he said, was concerned by growing voices in politics and the media which were questioning the part played by faith in education, and continued to believe that schools were best served by a non-denominational Christian ethos open to those of all faiths and none.

The Board has also been engaged in debates over the religious education (RE) curriculum, and defended schools’ holding a Christian act of collective worship to retain their Christian ethos. He said that the Board was also deeply concerned about the underfunding of schools in Northern Ireland. Through the Transferers Representative Council (a joint body of other Protestant churches who have schools in the state sector), the Board had been working with the Roman Catholic Church on a process to establish joint Protestant-Catholic schools, managed together by multiple denominations.

Covering the Republic, Hazel Corrigan (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) reported that nearly 1600 members of primary-school boards of management had now been given training by dioceses, which was a huge achievement by volunteers. Work was also under way to revise the RE curriculum for Church of Ireland primary schools, she said.

The Bishop of Derry, the Rt Revd Andrew Forster, said that the Church’s work in schools was one of its most important contributions to ministry, following on from Jesus’s elevation of the status and dignity of children. The education landscape had been “horrendous” in recent years, he said, referring to lockdowns, online teaching, and budget cuts on both sides of the border. He thanked teachers for continuing to do more with less, and also those clergy who supported local schools, especially in governance and management.

The Revd Adrian Dorrian (Down & Dromore) said that being a school governor was one of the most fulfilling parts of his ministry, and urged clergy to be active in recruiting congregants on to boards.

The Archdeacon of Meath & Kildare, the Ven. Leslie Stevenson (Meath & Kildare), noted how demands on boards of management had grown enormously in recent years. He also said that many schools were struggling financially, as the state cut back funding year after year; and teachers were finding the workload intolerable.

Canon Gillian Wharton (Dublin & Glendalough) echoed Archdeacon Stevenson’s concerns. Grants from the Department for Education in the Republic did not arrive normally until Christmas, forcing schools to keep paying the bills for the whole of the first term by themselves. It was “disingenuous” for government ministers to claim that no school needed to ask for parental contributions, she said, when such contributions were needed simply to keep the lights on. She also made a plea to cancel the closure of the Church of Ireland Primary School Management Association, which is due to disband.

Tim Smyth (Meath & Kildare) spoke of the challenges faced by school management boards, which were supposed to be private corporate bodies, and had to deal with GDPR, HR, and other complex concerns by themselves, but if they ever dared ask parents for money, they would be publicly scolded by the government. He felt that church schools were under-resourced centrally, and that the funding crisis could be resolved only by urgent conversations with the government. He also raised the issue of the government’s compelling schools to hire certain teachers whenever a vacancy arose, which would never happen in any other walk of life. This system just did not work for small schools.

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