When Pope Francis lands at Dublin airport tomorrow, he touches the ground of the country where the educational landscape has changed considerably since the last papal visit.
While the vast majority of school children were white and Catholic in the late 1970s, today's classrooms reflect the diversity of the changed society: about one in nine children in primary education has a non-Irish background.
Our native population has also broadened its spiritual views: there has been a dramatic decline in church attendance, while the most recent Census showed that more than 20 percent of our parents' age group is non-religious.
The ownership of schools has also changed. The first Educate Together school was established in 1978 by frustrated parents who were refused on religious grounds in their local school. Today, the multi-confessional movement has a network of 82 schools across the country.
In fact, multi-denominational schools are the fastest growing types of school patterns in the state, with the number of students increasing by 10 percent in the past year.
But for all the hazy pace of change in the past two decades, the system itself has not changed that much.
Primary schools in Ireland remain predominantly confessional, especially Catholic, property and management, despite demographic changes.
Approximately 96 percent of primary schools are under the supervision of churches and 90 percent of them are under the patronage of the Catholic Church.
Almost everyone – including the churches – agrees that controlling as far as possible the control of primary schools by religious denominations is not in keeping with the needs of an increasingly diverse society. But few are willing to take control.
It is six years ago that plans to clear the way for the divestment of schools of religious property were announced in a glow of publicity.
The report of the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism, drawn up by former Minister Ruair Quinn, ordered religious schools in about 28 areas to be divested to multidominational clients.
So far, progress has been slow and divisive: so far only about 12 have completed the divestment process.
There have been a number of obstacles, such as local resistance to change, parents' fears and opposition from local bishops.
The glacial pace of progress prompted the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin last year to criticize elements of the Church because they "walked with their feet" on this subject.
The divestment process has since been renamed a & # 39; reconfiguration process & # 39; – where schools are transferred to new customers instead of a more cumbersome process of closures and mergers. There is still little signal that this has accelerated the process.
Religion also holds a prominent place in the school day. The Education Act (1998) protects the right of schools to release reasonable time on any school day for topics related to the ethos of the school, such as belief building.
Official guidelines suggest half an hour – or 2.5 hours per week – for teaching religion or belief. This is double the time most schools spend on PE (physical education).
However, important reforms have been implemented in the religious control of admission to schools.
The removal of the baptism barrier – recently established by Secretary of Education Richard Bruton – removes the role of religion in school admissions for most primary schools (schools for minority faith are excluded).
This historical movement means that parents do not feel pressured to baptize their child in order to gain access to their local school.
This is perhaps only the beginning of more far-reaching reforms.
Opinion polls indicate that a large majority of Irish citizens want less church involvement in our government-funded schools.
However, there are significant obstacles to change, such as the Constitution and the Education Act, which will make it difficult to bring about change.
Labor and Social Democrats have proposed a civilian meeting to debate a highly polarized and complex area. Other political parties, private, are not opposed to the idea.
The irony is that what seems to be a radical proposition in some circles – the breaking of the bond between church and state in education – is a return to the original vision for our primary school system.
The & # 39; Stanley Letter & # 39; from 1831 – a letter from the chief secretary of the British government to the Duke of Leinster, the greatest nobleman of Dublin – is generally regarded as the basis for the national school.
Stanley's view was that these schools would be non-confessional and that religious education should be separate.
Within a few decades, the strength of the different churches increasingly meant that the vision was not realized and that the schools (or national schools as they were called) were in fact confessional.