The Mathematics of Patronage and Pluralism

Between 96% and 98% of Irish primary schools are denominational in patronage, which means that one or two particular religions are taught as truth as part of the school day. There is a lot of focus in the media about Catholic schools and non-baptised children. I believe this is very unhelpful as it pitches Catholic schools against everyone else. I do not believe the whole discussion on patronage is a Catholic vs non-Catholic debate.

For me it is about the current model of education, i.e. a pluralist one, where pretty much all political parties have decided that there should be a choice for all families of the type of school in which they wish to enrol their children according to their religious beliefs. This allows any denominational school to have the legal right to refuse access to their school if the child is being raised in a different religion to the school. However, schools without a particular faith cannot refuse a child according to their religious beliefs. What are the mathematics behind this and are they fair?

Currently, the following options exist for families:

  1. A denominational school – Catholic, Jewish, etc.
  2. A multi-denominational school

Denominational schools give priority of enrollment to children of their particular faith. Multi-denominational schools cannot and do not. Furthermore any child from a background different to the denomination of the school cannot have equal respect throughout the school day as a minimum of 30 minutes is spent on faith formation and therefore the child must either take part against his/her belief system or opt out for this part of the day (anything up to 25% of the school day). Therefore the mathematics have to assume that a denominational school cannot 100% provide for a child outside of this denomination and therefore it can be said that a child with the same faith as the denomination of the school has an advantage.

A quick example of a make-believe village in Ireland is one that contains a Jewish school and an ETB school. Because the ETB school is multi-denominational, it gives everyone equal access and equal respect (i.e. full participation) in the school day. Because the Jewish school is denominational, it can only give Jewish children full respect in the school day (given the system we have in Ireland that ethos permeates throughout the day.)

The formula to find out the choice of schools for families is as follows:

((E + A) / N) x 100 = C


  • E = The number of schools where one has an equal chance of enrolling
  • A = The number of schools where one has an advantage over anyone of a different faith
  • N = The total number of schools
  • C = Choice Percentage where 100% means that the family will be able to choose from any of the schools available where their child will be equally respected throughout the school day. 0% means that there is no school available for families where their child will be equally respected throughout the school day.
  • Please note that equal respect is used in terms of faith. It does not mean that denominational schools are not kind, nice or in any way unwelcoming to children of other faiths and none. They simply cannot respect the faith of these children as these children cannot be fully included in the faith formation provided by the school.

In the above example a Jewish family would have a choice score of 100% ((1+1)/2)x100) and any other family would have a choice score of 50%, ((0 + 1)/2)x100). If you are Jewish in this village, you are guaranteed a place in a school where your rights will be 100% respected. If you are not, you only have a 50% chance.

Now let’s look at some real areas of Ireland and pick four different families and their needs.

  1. Family A: children are being raised in the Catholic faith
  2. Family B: children are being raised in the Church of Ireland faith
  3. Family C: children are being raised in the Jewish faith
  4. Family D: children are being raised with no faith

Now let’s pick 3 areas: Dublin 6, Co. Leitrim and Co. Louth.

Dublin 6

There are 14 primary schools in Dublin 6 according to the Department of Education web site. Of these, 8 are Catholic, 3 are Church of Ireland, 1 is Jewish, 1 is Methodist and 1 is multi-denominational. In terms of accessing these schools, let’s see the mathematics.

  1. Family A have an equal chance of getting into the multi-denominational school. In 8 of the schools, they have an advantage over other children of different faiths or none. In 3 of the schools, they are at a disadvantage.
  2. Family B also have an equal chance in 1 out of the 14 schools. 3 of these schools give them preference over those of other faiths.
  3. Family C have an advantage over other faiths in getting into one school in the area and they have an equal chance of getting into one other of the fourteen schools.
  4. Family D only have an equal chance as everyone else in getting into 1 school out of the 14. They do not have an advantage of getting into any other school.

Here are the Choice Scores for each family: ((E + A) / N) x 100 = C

  • Family A: ((1 + 8) / 14) x 100 = 64.3%
  • Family B: ((1 + 3) / 14) x 100 = 28.6%
  • Family C: ((1 + 1) / 14) x 100 = 14.3%
  • Family D: ((1 + 0) / 14) x 100 = 7.1%

As we can see, in Dublin 6, at best, families have almost a 2 in 3 chance of getting into a school that completely respects their religious values. To my eyes, this is much lower than I would have expected. I would have assumed that over 90% of Catholic children would have their religious needs taken care of anywhere in the country. In Dublin 6, only around 65% can. Obviously it’s a far more favourable position than any of the other example families. For example, the family with no religion only has a 7% chance of getting into a school that will completely respect their values.

Co. Leitrim

If we go to County Leitrim, what do we find? There are 39 primary schools here and 36 (92%) of them are Catholic and 3 (8%)  of them are Church of Ireland. Here’s are our families:

  1. Family A: ((0 + 36) / 39) x 100 = 92.3%
  2. Family B: ((0 + 3) / 39) x 100 = 7.7%
  3. Family C: ((0 + 0) / 39) x 100 = 0%
  4. Family D:((0 + 0) / 39) x 100 = 0%

This situation puts two of our families into difficult situations. They either take a place in a school that provides faith formation in a religion they don’t belong to or they don’t go to school. Is this fair? While Family B do have a few options, it is very likely that it will not be their local school. Meanwhile, Family A is in a lucky position in that they really don’t have to think very much at all. Is this fair?

Co. Louth

There are 72 schools in total with 66 Catholic, 2 Church of Ireland, 1 Presbyterian and 3 Educate Together

  1. Family A: ((3 + 66) / 72) x 100 = 95.8%
  2. Family B: ((3 + 2) / 72) x 100 = 6.9%
  3. Family C: ((3 + 0) / 72) x 100 = 4.2%
  4. Family D:((3 + 0) / 72) x 100 = 4.2%

While one might argue that Co. Leitrim is less likely to be as multicultural (and therefore less likely to be multi-faith) as Co. Louth, we can see that the figures are actually fairly similar.

However, whatever county one looks at, there is never a situation where every family scores a 100% Choice Value. Not only is our model unequal, no matter what belief system one has, it is never fair. The system is set up in such as way that there is never a 100% chance that one will have access to a full school day that respects one’s faith or lack of it.

This also means that there are definitely children attending schools where their faith or lack of it is not being catered for. This is not the school’s fault. They must follow their patron’s ethos. It is well known that schools try their utmost to include children of all backgrounds in their schools. However, the problem is that it is impossible for any denominational school to include children that are not of the faith of the school 100% of the time.

The system of patronage needs to change to ensure that, no matter what, there is not a single second of the school day, where a child is left out or not included in what is going on in the classroom because of the religious belief that their parents have chosen for them. This is especially true in Ireland where we are supposed to be a secular state.

Perhaps there are other variables that haven’t been included in this formula and I’d be interested in hearing opinions on how it can be improved. It is designed to be rudimentary and may come across as harsh but it is not a judgement on the quality of schools. It is simply a score that determines the level of choice for any family.



6 thoughts on “The Mathematics of Patronage and Pluralism”

  1. Well done. However, I think your model should be based on the number of places available per school rather than just the number of schools. This would give a much fairer reading.

    Even then, there is a hidden consideration. In areas where schools of a certain ethos are not oversubscribed by families of the same ethos, then the % goes to 100% for those families, while remaining unchanged for everyone else. Ex: if there are 45 jewish children and 55 available places, then they all get their first preference. I doubt this ever works in favour of families with only a reference for multidenominational schools though!

    These points aside, what your model does show is the significant degree of inequality of choice for some families versus others in a State-funded system. This must change as a matter of urgency.

    • I think you’ve fair points there. School places would be much more useful. I might be able to try that in an area like Dublin 6 where there are only 14 schools but I think I’d have to give up my day job if I was to try the other areas! There are also other variables that aren’t in this analysis so this quick little experiment, while nowhere near perfect, probably does its job to highlight the disaster of a system we have, I hope.

  2. Why do you assume that the ETB school is multi-denominational? Any ETB school I know of is Catholic in ethos. Cork ETB have told me that my non-religious children will be tolerated in their Catholic schools.

    • Hi Tash. I think you’re probably referring to second level. This article is only about primary schools. All ETB primary schools are labelled as multi-denominational. (For the record, ETB primary schools segregate children by faith for parts of the school year but they do not discriminate on access. In other words, you have as much chance of getting your child into an ETB national school as anyone whatever your faith or lack of it)

    • Yep, lots of variables that weren’t included. I’m not 100% sure but I don’t think a lot would change in terms of my point even if all variables were in place

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