Should the Catholic Church remain in control of our schools? - Thinking about Anarchism


Despite the Catholic hierarchy’s shameful efforts to silence the survivors of abuse, we now have some idea of what was happening behind the walls of church-run institutions across Ireland. In the wake of this, many people have begun asking whether the Catholic Church should continue to have any control whatsoever over state-funded education. As it stands, the Church still control 92% of primary schools. However a MRBI/Irish Times poll in January of this year found that a majority of Irish people now want this situation remedied.

The Church is understandably reluctant to cede one of the most important sources of its power and has launched a series of media and policy initiatives over the past few months with the aim of retrenching themselves within the schooling system, albeit on a smaller scale than before (1). Given the Church’s response and the fact that there seems to be no end to the torrent of stories of abuse and attempted cover-ups, it is unlikely that this debate is going to finish anytime soon.

Irish anarchists are clear about where they stand on this issue. They want to see the control of schools completely taken out of the Church’s hands. While individuals have the right to worship as they see fit outside of schools, there are numerous reasons why we support the curtailment of Church power within the compulsory education system, not least of which is the poor quality of education that they have provided to date.  

The Church stakes its claim for a continuing role in the education system on the basis that somehow the abuse scandals are anomalies and that, if you look at their overall record within education, it has made an invaluable contribution to learning and inquiry in this country. According to Cardinal Sean Brady, critics of the Church have conveniently ignored that “Catholic schools bring light to each generation of pupils and to society”. Let’s look at this claim by examining the performance of the educational system that the Church has had a central role in stewarding for most of the past century.  

Well, despite all the lazy rhetoric about Ireland being ‘a land of saints and scholars’ and our ‘world class’ education system, it is clear that, on a very basic level, it has failed an enormous number of people. The only comprehensive survey of basic literacy skills undertaken in this country in 1995 discovered that one in four adults has problems with very basic literacy tasks and that up to 40% of those surveyed had very limited literacy and numeracy skills (2). This can be ascribed to a number of factors, not least that free schooling only became available in the 1960s. However, it is very clear that the widespread experience of violence and petty humiliation within schools has had an enormously negative impact on generations of Irish students. Moreover, both research and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that these experiences were particularly common amongst vulnerable and working class children. This atmosphere is poisonous for learning and, to add insult to injury, those who fell behind because of this or due to other difficulties often found themselves ridiculed, ignored and labelled as ‘thick’.
These were not accidental or exceptional phenomena but rather were widespread and an integral part of schooling that was clearly designed to foster a culture of uncritical obedience and submission. It is unsurprising then that large numbers of people left school without even acquiring basic skills and that those who did manage to get through the system learnt to rely on rote learning rather than curiosity and intellectual stimulation.  This can hardly be described as ‘bringing a light’ to students and society.

Of course it should be acknowledged that people have also experienced acts of kindness and care and benefited from the interventions of capable lay and clerical teachers. It is also important to note that school system has become far more humane in the past thirty years. However, given some of the claims being made by senior Catholic clergy recently, it should not be forgotten that, for most of the history of the Irish state, the compulsory education system has undoubtedly been characterised by violence, authoritarianism and the demand for obedience. All of these things are ruinous for creativity and effective learning. As one of the key players within the Irish education system, the Catholic Church bears a significant measure of responsibility for this.

Given this legacy, and the massive breach of trust that has been documented in the Ferns, Murphy and Ryan reports (3), removing Church influence from schools would be a progressive step. The task, however, of creating a ‘world class’ education system will require far more than this.  In the short term, this will mean ensuring that adequate resources are allocated to education in a period of severe cutbacks and that access to those resources is more equitably distributed. In the long term, it will require that we develop new educational ideas and practices based on the principles of democracy and freedom right across an Irish education system completely freed of dogma.


  1. See for the full statement and an interview
  2. See for more details
  3. The Ryan Report:
    The Murphy Report:
    The Ferns Report: