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  • "The Primary and Natural Educator"?The Role of Parents in the Education of Their Children in Independent Ireland
  • Mary E. Daly (bio)

"The rights of parents in respect of their children are most sacred God-given rights, inalienable and imprescriptible by virtue of our Constitution, and only for the gravest reasons may parents be denied or deprived of their rights."

Rev. Cecil J. Barrett, 19551

The most explicit statement of parental rights in the 1937 Irish Constitution relates to education. Article 42 acknowledges the family as "the primary and natural educator of the child" and guarantees to respect "the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide for the moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children." This paper examines how church and state treated parents' rights with regard to their children's education in the first fifty years after independence.

In Ireland today, parental and children's rights are enshrined in the 1998 Education Act, whose objectives include "to give practical effect to the constitutional rights of children, including children who [End Page 194] have a disability or who have other special education needs as they relate to education, . . . to promote the right of parents to send their children to a school of the parent's choice having regard to the rights of patrons and the effective and efficient use of resources, [and] . . . to promote effective liaison and consultation between schools and centres for education, patrons, teachers [and] parents."2 The National Parents Council, which is recognized by the 1998 Education Act as the representative body for parents, encourages parents to become involved in their children's learning at home, in the community, and at school and supports parental engagement.3

In the mid-twentieth century, however, matters were rather different. Despite the constitutional guarantees accorded to the family with respect to education and, more generally, guarantees that were in accord with Catholic social teaching, parents were commonly excluded from playing an active role in their children's schooling.4 The reality is better captured by Sean O'Connor's blunt remark that "the parents' only place in the system was as providers of children." O'Connor, a senior official in the Department of Education, spoke from experience.5 Church and state combined to exclude parents from having a voice in educational matters, because any role for parents, however minimal, threatened the established equilibrium between church and state, or between church, state, and the teaching profession. When parents asserted rights that conflicted with the authority of the church, the state generally sided with the latter. This paper concentrates on the provision of primary or elementary schooling, because up to the 1960s, this was the only form of schooling experienced by a majority of Irish children. After a brief outline of the structure of Irish education in 1922, the paper examines the 1926 School Attendance Act and the 1950 Council of Education [End Page 195] for insights into how the new state regarded the role of parents with regard to education. This sets the scene for two case histories from the 1950s, where parents attempted to assert their voices with respect to their children's schooling: the first was a campaign to control the use of corporal punishment in schools, and the second, a campaign to establish schools for children with special needs. These histories reveal how the division of responsibilities between church and state with respect to education contrived to restrict the role of parents.

Irish Education: Structure and Governance

Education was a key battleground between the church and the state in nineteenth-century Ireland, but by the end of that century, an accommodation had been reached. The state paid teachers' salaries, set the curriculum, and inspected schools. Day-to-day control rested with the school manager, generally a local clergyman; he hired teachers, provided a site, and was responsible for raising a substantial share of the cost of construction and for maintaining the school premises, which were generally vested in the diocese.6 This model left Irish national schools with inadequate funding for buildings and supplies. Many teachers were unqualified, but the decision to appoint or remove them rested with the school manager. In 1902, a...


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