The very act of decentralization has the potential to create powerful regional boards that will gradually weaken the self-governing autonomy of Ireland's schools, according to Messrs. Lennon and White.
Historically, Ireland has held education in very high regard; in the Middle Ages it was known as "the island of saints and scholars." This reverence for education was based largely in the monasteries, and the association of religion and education continues today.
Under the Constitution of 1937, the church controlled education, with church patrons or trustees owning the schools, appointing the teachers, and receiving funding from the state. A small vocational sector instituted by statute in 1930 now enrolls about 20% of secondary students. But the system of education in Ireland could be described as a private system funded by the state.
In the late 1960s community schools were introduced. Run by "boards of management" consisting of teachers, parents, religious leaders, and local politicians, these schools usually came into being when a number of small religious schools merged with small vocational schools.
The state has accepted the strong presence of religion in education. Indeed, Article 42 of the Constitution of 1937 states that "parents shall not be obliged in violation of their conscience to send their children to schools established by the state" and that "the state shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative and, where the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities." These provisions have been so little challenged that the system of education, lacking in legislative underpinning, has evolved as a consensus of a large number of interest groups. Consequently, the system is a patchwork,(1) with five separate types of secondary schools with differing governance structures that fall into three broad categories, based on ownership of school property: 461 voluntary secondary schools (mainly church-owned), 73 community and comprehensive schools (state-owned), and 248 vocational and community colleges (owned by local authorities).
The government budget for education in 1996 was more than [pounds]2 billion, which represents 6.5% of the gross national product and, as a percentage of gross national product, is almost double that of 30 years ago. (We should note that, because Ireland has almost twice as many pupils relative to the number of people employed as the rest of the countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, per-pupil spending is only about two-thirds of the average of other OECD countries.) Thus any proposals to modify school governance must be judged within the context of continuing demands for cost-effective public expenditure, which have been central to public discourse since the 1980s.
A number of proposals for changing governance in Ireland's schools have been promulgated in a government white paper, "Charting Our Education Future," issued in 1995 after a broad consultative process involving all those with an interest in education. The consultations involved the dissemination of a discussion paper, regional conferences, a weeklong National Education Convention at which all major issues were discussed, and a three-day national conference of all the key interests that focused on the specific issues of school governance and regional education structures.
Proposals for Change
Many reports on Irish education, while drawing attention to the privatized nature of many of the schools, have emphasized the centralized administrative structure of the system. Proposals in the white paper try to provide a more coherent structure for school governance. The proposed structure would comprise three levels of decision making - state (national), regional, and school site - each with its own decision-making powers.
1. State level: department of education. It is proposed that the minister of education, though answerable to the Irish Parliament, retain the final responsibility for the state's role in education. …