National school (Ireland)

In Ireland, a National school is a type of primary school that is financed directly by the State, but administered jointly by the State, a patron body, and local representatives. There are other forms of primary school, often private denominational schools attached to secondary schools – unlike their second level counterparts, these primary level private schools receive no support from the state.

In National schools, most major policies such as the curriculum and teacher salaries and conditions are managed by the State through the Department of Education and Skills. Minor policies of the school are managed by local people, often directed by a member of the clergy, as representative of the patron, through a local board of management. Most primary schools in Ireland fall into this category, which is a pre-independence concept.

It was formerly common for national-school teachers to use the post-nominal letters N.T.[1][2]


National schools, established by the British Government with the Stanley Letter in 1831, were originally multi-denominational. The schools were controlled by a State body, the National Board of Education, with a six-member board consisting of two Roman Catholics, two Church of Ireland, and two Presbyterians. In the National Schools, there was strict delimitation between religious and non-religious education, where the teacher had to declare that religious education was beginning, hang a sign on the wall or door indicating that religious education was in process, and remove all religious symbols and objects from sight when religious education finished. Also, parents had the right to remove their children from this period of religious education if it conflicted with their religious beliefs. Lastly, schools who failed to abide by these rules or who refused admissions of different faiths to the patron were denied state funding. These rules largely remain in place today, but are no longer well recognised by the State, the patron bodies, or the general public.

In the early nineteenth century, in a climate of animosity between the churches, the multi-denominational system was strongly opposed: the established church (Protestant Church of Ireland), though the church of the minority, held a special position and a right to government support in promoting Protestantism. Both the Roman Catholic Church, which was emerging from a period of suppression, and the Presbyterians, who had also suffered under the penal laws, had sought state support for schools of their own tradition. In particular Bishop James Doyle was an early proponent, seeking to improve on the informal hedge school system.Doyle spoke before a Parliamentary Committee as follows:

I do not see how any man wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinions.

This is how he sees it from a political point of view. Separate schools would endanger the public peace, which is not yet permanent. The prosperity of the country also depends on keeping children together. Then he deals with the effect of separation on the children themselves.

I do not know of any measures that would prepare the way for better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same school, leading them to commune with one another and to form those little intimacies and friendships which subsist through life. Children thus united know and love each other as children brought up together always will and to separate them is I think, to destroy some of the finest feelings in the hearts of men of the finest feelings in the hearts of men.

In 1831, Earl Stanley, Chief Secretary for Ireland, in a letter to the Duke of Leinster, outlined the new State supported system of primary education (this letter remains today the legal basis of the system). The two legal pillars of the National School system were to be (i) children of all religious denominations to be taught together in the same school, with (ii) separate religious instruction. There was to be no hint of proselytism in this new school system. The new system, initially well supported by the religious denominations, quickly lost support of the Churches. However, the population showed great enthusiasm and flocked to attend these new National Schools.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, first the Catholic Church, and later the Protestant churches conceded to the state, and accepted the "all religious denominations together" legal position. Where possible, parents sent their children of a National School under the local management of their particular Church. The result was that by the end of the nineteenth century the system had become increasingly denominational, with individuals choosing to attend schools primarily catering to children of their own religion. However, the legal position de jure, that all national schools are multi-denominational, remains to this day. Although, since the establishment of the Free State consistent pressure has been exerted by the Catholic Church to drop the multi-denominational legal position, this has never been conceded by the state. A report was submitted to government in 1953 showing more than 90% of the schools were attended by only one denomination – that most National Schools were de facto denominational. Changes in the Rules for National Schools were introduced in 1965 and 1973 allowing for the first time integration of religious education into the curriculum. Today, following many years of immigration (for the first time in Ireland), a large majority of the National Schools cater for more than one religion. Today National Schools are both de jure and de facto multi-denominational.[3]

See also


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  1. Joint Committee on the Family (1996). "Interim Report - Kelly: A child is dead". p. Chapter 3; Abbreviations. Retrieved 6 January 2014.
  2. The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations. Oxford University Press. 1998. p. 276. ISBN 9780192800732.
  3. Coolahan, John (1981). Irish Education: Its History and Structure. Institute of Public Administration. pp. 4–14. ISBN 0-906980-11-9.
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