Polls and surveys

There’s an animated discussion taking place in the comments of Breda O’Brien’s latest Irish Times column. The comments point out the complexity of educational policy in a State committed to remaining ignorant of the rights of its inhabitants. Breda forces two surveys, the paper’s own recent opinion poll (61% of respondents do not want Catholic Church control of education post-Murphy) and some of her own experiences into a chimera of epic proportion. It being the eve of Catholic Schools Week, Breda felt it important to throw in her own two pence. Her contribution is part of a wider debate that is not really happening (other than on a few blogs and the newspapers) across Ireland that concerns the ‘ownership’ and control of children’s education.

Her column makes reference to the report of a survey that I helped to coordinate and authored called Factors Determining School Choice. This report was an attempt at finding out what is in the mind of parents who send their children to primary schools under the authority of the local Catholic patron, usually that Diocese’s bishop. It’s not a particularly easy read because its messages are complex and not journalistically easily parsed. The conclusions of the research are provided on page 53 of the PDF available here. One of these states that:

There is a sophisticated understanding amongst parents of the variety of the roles for both the Church and the State as they now exist and this model is endorsed by a majority of parents.

And another that states that:

Religious factors are important for parents in choosing a school for their child but not as important as more formal pedagogical factors.

Parents are aware that their child’s school is run out of a set of specific religious values but that other factors are more important to them when choosing their child’s school. To me, although this is not in the report, the report hints that class position is more important than whether or not the Bishop is a patron. Breda recalls in her column that when parents were:

asked whether the churches should continue to have a prominent role in the provision of primary education [schooling], 62 per cent [it was above 63 but anyway] either agreed or strongly agreed, almost exactly the percentage which, according to the Irish Times poll, are rejecting church control.

Polls are very different from surveys and Breda knows this. The report that I helped compile and wrote was based on a survey of parents (who may or may not have been Catholics – let alone those who practice their faith) who send their child to a school under the authority of the Catholic patron. The Irish Times poll was taken using a randomly generated sampling frame of over 1,000 people across the State who may have children and who may not, who are Christian and who are not and who have read the Murphy report’s summary and those who have not. Polls are not surveys. Breda has done a disservice to her own interests when she says that the 2008 survey result is “almost exactly the percentage which….are rejecting church control”. That’s like saying that the 61% who enjoy the taste of Coke is almost exactly the same percentage as the 63% who chose Pepsi the last time they drank at a pub. She does though make a fair point when she says that:

The myth of Catholic schools as places that indoctrinate and control needs to be nailed because it is unfair and unjust. It is being perpetuated by people who are completely out of touch with the broad, liberal education being offered by Catholic schools.

It needs to be nailed however, not because it is anti-Catholic (because it is not), but because any decisions to be taken about educational provision will benefit from its dismissal as a myth. A broad and fair-minded discussion about how we educate children who become voting citizens of this State will be much better served if we can think beyond Cullenist characterisations of the past and techno-utopian futures bereft of what we believe to be just and fair.

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