Bishop Paul Colton’s Speech at the Annual Conference of the IPPN (Irish Primary Principals’ Network)

Extracts from the Keynote Address of

the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,

Bishop of Cork,

at the Annual Conference

of the IPPN (Irish Primary Principals’ Network)

29th January, 2015

Daring to Lead

Education today is a world away from that of my childhood.

I want to look for a few moments at some of the changes in your context in which you, as school principals, are already ‘Daring to Lead’.


Demographic change:

At the time of Census 2011 there were 544,357 non-Irish nationals living in Ireland. That was up by 124,624 in the previous five years or 320,096 since 2002. In 2011, non-Irish people made up 12% of our population – that’s up from 5.8% in 2002. These people, our neighbours and co-workers, represent 199 different nations.

I see this in schools under my patronage. In figures supplied to me last week I see that the majority of those schools are accommodating many nationalities, a significant number have 5, 6 and 7 nationalities with some welcoming 9, 12 and in one, case, in one school 18 nationalities. This is reflected in languages too: most of the schools reported between 5 and 14 languages in use by the children.

This new diversity is a wonderful and exciting thing. Ireland is much the better, in my view, for this fresh, rich tapestry of outlooks and experiences. With diversity comes change. I’ve no doubt that you are encountering changed attitudes to parenting, to authority, among some new arrivals to the authority and leadership of women, to children, and to discipline, for example. Permeating these also are challenges of communication and language.

Change in attitudes of Irish parents

Not all of the impetus for new outlooks is coming from outside. The Irish parents of today’s schoolchildren have, in large numbers, lived in other places and returned home. They have explored other cultures, ideologies, belief systems and ways of life. These insights influence parenting, and they have raised the expectations placed on our schools.

Religion and Demographics:

Let’s look for a moment at the new religious diversity in our country. The percentage of the majority religious grouping – Roman Catholics – has dropped from 94.9% in 1961 (the year after I was born) to 84.2% in 2011. In terms of numbers, however, there are more Roman Catholics than ever before in the State: from 2,673,473 in 1961 to 3,861,335 (the highest recorded since 1881).

This greater number of Roman Catholics (the highest ever) represented by a lower percentage (the lowest ever), tells us what we already know: that the religious space in Ireland is more diverse and is occupied by more forms of believing, as well as not believing. Before 1991 some of the religious groupings were not even quantified. The types of religious affiliation are growing; and the number affiliated to the growing number of groups is growing. What do we have? Diversity.

I saw this myself during the period I was working in West Dublin in the 1990s. Looking at the period between 1991 and 2011 we see this pattern:


Religion 1991 2011
Muslim 3,975 49,204
Orthodox 358 45,223
Pentecostal 285 14,043
Hindu 953 10,688
Buddhist 986 8,703
Lutheran 1,010 5,683


And there was growth too in the traditional minority religious groupings:

Religion 1991 2011
Church of Ireland 89,187 134, 365
Presbyterian 13,199 24,600

 And as we know some of the most rapid growth has been among those identifying as nonreligious, agnostic or atheist – aggregated, these groupings have grown fourfold between 1991 and 2011 to 277,237.

  1961 1991 2011
No religion 1,107 66,270 269,811
Not stated 5,625 83,375 72,914


All of these represent huge percentage increases in the groups concerned and point to a diversity of religious practice previously unknown in Ireland. Again I see this in the information given to me by schools in my own Diocese: numbers of schools accommodating 6,7, 9 and 11 Christian denominations; between 3 and 9 other faiths; and in most schools large numbers of non-religious – on a scale between 6% and 54% of individual schools’ enrolment.

People and Families:

Another reality – a different aspect of diversity – that you engage with professionally is the many new forms that the ‘family’ takes in Ireland. In the midst of the current debates in the run up to the marriage equality referendum the so-called ‘traditional family’ is referred to as some sort of idealised, ‘dancing at the crossroads’ concept of ‘the family’ that is at risk. Was there ever really such a ‘Stepford Wives’ world?   Any of us who explores the joy of love and relationships and commits our life together to one other person knows that few people actually live in a smug, tidy settled world of perfection.   That’s a ‘Peter and Jane world’ of Ladybird that I suspect never really was. As is so often the case reality is more complex and less clear cut.

You see it in schools. As well as such families of mother, father and children, within your school communities you are already including, caring for, and educating children from an increasingly diverse range of family backgrounds: single parents; children where one parent has died; single parents with new partners; married parents who for work reasons spend substantial periods of time apart; the child of a lesbian or gay parent, whether genetic or adopted; children being parented by two adults of the same gender; children living with one parent and not another (separation or divorce); children living with grandparents, or a guardian or a foster parent … and all of these perceive themselves to be family, and you treat them as such. That is daring to lead.

In schools you are part of the joy of family life of families such as these, and, whatever the type of family, you are drawn into support too at times of hardship or challenge.



These are just some of the arenas in which there has been immense change in our society, and schools find themselves at the vortex of those changes every school day of the school year, and sometimes outside those times as well.

The question is: if we have change and diversity on an unprecedented scale in our society – in terms of nationality, cultural identity, language, religious affiliation, non-belief, and in social structures such as our sense and organisation of family life, how are schools, how are you as principals to respond? Obviously you have to dare to lead.

With the limitations of time, I want to focus on two aspects in particular: accommodating religious diversity, and the teaching of religion.

Accommodating Religious Diversity:

How to accommodate diversity is one of the great dilemmas of our time in the Irish educational system while, at the same time, honouring the parental choice of a by no means monochrome majority. This will be an ever-increasing node of pressure, and tension, for the foreseeable future.

All sorts of issues present themselves and will increasingly do so: religious outlook, non-belief, religious dress, religious symbols, dietary laws, and worship needs. In the United Kingdom and in other parts of Europe many of these issues have filtered through domestic courts and, in some cases, onwards to the European Court of Human Rights. I would be surprised if some litigation does not yet lie ahead of us here in Ireland too.

Schools, particularly schools under religious patronage (because often they are the only option in a neighbourhood), have a particular obligation today to be places of diversity and inclusion; not in some reluctant, half-hearted or residual way, but positively and with affirmation of diversity.


Is our system up to it? When these issues arise the Department’s approach has, to my mind, been one of, at times, ‘passing the buck’: such issues are, it is said, ‘a matter for each Board of Management locally’. This is not good enough. Some of these issues need to be proactively adduced in a round-table forum that brings together representatives of our diverse religious bodies, and non-religious, and the partners in education to support the education framework generally, and boards and principals in particular.

I am a Christian. I am Church of Ireland. It is that Christianity that inspires my belief in justice and equality. So I also hold, therefore, that as a matter of justice and equality the rights of minorities have to be accommodated, and I don’t mean only religious minorities, I refer also to those who are now part of one of the largest minority groups in the State: those who are not religious or who oppose a religious outlook. They have rights too.

As long as Christian churches have what, in most parts of the country, is a monopoly on the delivery of primary education on behalf of the State, then we have an overriding duty to accommodate diversity and to provide for the educational needs that need to be met in the changing communities in which we are set.

All of this diversity and the rights of minorities has to be set alongside, as I say, the role of the family as primary educator, parental choice and the expectations too of the majority.


Without dialogue and reflection this will emerge more and more as an ideological tug-o’war.

Accommodating Diversity ~ Teaching Religion:

A particular focus of this debate is the teaching of religion. Rules 68 and 69 were written for another era: my childhood – 1965. We know that the legal entitlement to the opt-out is, in the main, not practicable, for all sorts of reasons, including limited resources for supervision. All too often the opting-out marginalises or even stigmatises some of the children who, in most parts of the country, do not have other choices of school in which to enrol.

A related question is why and how we teach religion: is it to educate? Or is it to catechise and nurture faith? In order to accommodate diversity could nurturing faith not be done outside school?

Are we teaching religion in a way that keeps walls firmly up, strangers out and difference in its place, or in a way that breaks down difference, affirms and recognizes humbly the God-given dignity and variety in God’s creation and among God’s people. Religion should not be taught in a way that marginalises and objectifies others, that excludes and stereotypes people who are different from myself.

You are uniquely placed to dare to lead by debunking myths and fostering understanding.  Dare I say to schools of the majority, you have a special responsibility to reach out and to ensure that minorities are understood?

Moderate and reasonable believers in all religions need to distance themselves from extreme, fundamentalist, and fanatical manifestations or out-workings of those religions. Immovable, uncompromising zealotry and fanaticism – radicalisation of believers in any tradition, results, paradoxically, most often in a betrayal of the core values of most religious faiths.

It is equally risky and naïve to ignore religion. It cannot be dismissed. At the very least it is a phenomenon embraced by many human beings that has permeated history, for good and bad; it has shaped and still shapes what many societies and people still are. If we do not understand religion we fail to understand the world around us.

A National Debate:

Some argue that diversity cannot be adequately accommodated at all as long as the system is predicated on a foundation of majority religious patronage.

\My own personal view is that there is indeed a problem. As long as our system is fundamentally based on religious denomination, then minorities, and increasing numbers of minorities, are entitled to, and will claim, a share of that patronage. There are logical boundaries, obviously, on the capacity for diversification. Diversification of patronage as set out by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism has inevitable limits; it is not practicable to give every minority group patronage of its own school in every place in the State.

I can foresee, therefore, the day may well come when a model of patronage based overwhelmingly on religious denomination may have to be replaced.

Then, however, a new question will arise; can a system ever be exclusively and purely secular?

I am very sceptical about how a secular system might work in a society where there is such an overwhelming majority of one religious outlook but many minorities. As long as the demography of Irish society is the way it is – where the majority of people, with whatever level of allegiance and practice, self-define as being religious, it is hard to imagine how a truly secular system can be guaranteed, not least in a way that does not become residual religious majoritarian-ism by default. In other words if 84% of the people in a society self-define as Roman Catholic how can society in general, and minorities in particular, be assured that a so-called secular system will not, in fact, be Roman Catholic by majoritarian default?

In the midst of such debates I have found that even among determined secularists and adamant atheists – not least in the media – that the residual religious syntax and culture is, paradoxically, uncritically infused with the religion of their upbringing.

It was only when I had written this address that I saw the article in Eolas written by the Secretary-General, Seán Ó Foghlú in which he advocates ‘that whole system reform is needed to deliver meaningful change.’ He identifies demographic pressures as I do, and highlights, as one of the four themes – ‘supporting inclusion and diversity’ – the very thing I am talking to you about today.

I have no doubt that the partners in education would engage wholeheartedly with the Department in that holistic enterprise. I would suggest, however, that a broader range of stakeholders, including those with wide and vested interests in the educational outcomes in our society, should be included also.

I am convinced, therefore, that all these issues are not best addressed by a Government Department alone. Change on such a fundamental ideological level should not happen either piecemeal, or by stealth or indeed, by unintended consequence. I would suggest that the time has come again for a new National Forum on the shape and ideology that undergirds our education system exploring national, inclusive models of education that transcend the boundaries of faith communities. Unless there is dialogue and the testing of such models, perhaps even by national plebiscite, we will never know what sort of education system the people of this country want for our children.

Your role:

Finally, let me say, teachers and schools do not have the luxury of dealing only with an idyll.  School life and your professional life is complex. The issues I am highlighting are big issues. In all sorts of ways they surface in news stories with increasing frequency. We have seen them already this week: concerning the use of baptism as a gateway to a school of choice; and the proposals to amend Section 37 which, incidentally, I personally, wholeheartedly support.

Issues like these will arise more frequently. Some of them are nodes of pressure in your professional life, pushing you to limits beyond the resources currently available to you, and demanding understanding and empathy.

We all live, and you in your schools work, in times when many things that once were not understood, poorly understood or repressed are now, much for the better, in the open: family life, mental health, sexuality, ability and differences in ability, and varieties of intelligence to name but a few.

You as teachers have been well-placed over the years to observe and to see all of this already among the people you work with and care for.   Above all they make for schools that already are and will more and more become places of encounter with difference.


In many ways I am intrigued by the title of your conference: ‘Daring to Lead.’ It is not in the vocative case, addressing you directly and exhorting you to lead. It is not the imperative: commanding or requesting you to dare to lead. Rightly, it is an affirmation of who you as school principals are and of what you are already doing and have, in fact been doing, often against the odds of limited resources.

And so I say to you that you are uniquely placed on some of these issues. There was the old television game show ‘Catch Phrase’ – and the gameshow host’s mantra to people who were struggling to find the answer was’ what do you see? Tell us what you are seeing? Tell us what you see.’

Society needs you as principals to keep telling us what you are seeing, encountering and engaging with in terms of change and diversity in your context. Your daring to lead places an onus on you of engagement with the diversity in your school communities and more widely. And your response – what is daring to lead? In summary it includes:


  • Observation
  • Critical reflection and engagement
  • Affirmation of people and diversity
  • Channelling your insights and experiences into the education system at every level
  • Human and professional support for human diversity
  • Inclusion, justice and equality
  • Best practice in all things.


Schools are one window onto the changes in our society. You as principals, with your colleagues in the schools, have a unique vantage point on, and role in, all of this and I encourage you to continue to dare to lead.

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