Multidenominational: A long word, long-abused

The education landscape used to be an easy one to maneuver. Between the 1920s and 1978, you could go to a primary school and it would be easy to identify it: Catholic, Church of Ireland (or some branch of Protestantism) and then there was a Jewish school. Everything changed when Educate Together came along in the form of the School Project Model and suddenly, Ireland had a new type of ethos: multidenominationalism.

For Educate Together, this generally meant that their schools celebrated, catered and respected children from all faiths and none. Unfortunately, over time the term has become misunderstood, misused, misinterpreted and, in some cases, abused. The government is the chief culprit in all of this with politicians regularly interchanging the word with interdenominationalism, non-denominationalism and even multiculturalism! However, why does it matter?

Ireland has been in breach of Human Rights for a number of years due to the fact that although it is:

legally obliged to provide religiously neutral studying environments if it continues to ‘provide for’ the education in denominational schools. The state is also legally obliged to ensure that there is no religious discrimination in access to schools and in workplaces.

(Teach Don’t Preach Web Site)

over 95% of schools are under denominational patronage even though the state fully funds them. Due to a rather strange scenario that the state can’t simply fix this problem due to all sorts of laws which Paul Rowe, CEO of Educate Together, calls a triple-lock system, the government are increasingly under pressure to ensure that this blatant abuse of human rights is remedied.

Luckily for them, the word “multidenominationalism” can be defined in many different ways. While Educate Together had their own definition of the word, the government have their own version of the definition and it seems that they are happy to claim that while they cannot control the divestment problem, they can open up new multidenominational schools. Many of these appear to be in the form of ETB community national schools and some Gaelscoileanna.

However, unfortunately, calling a school multidenominational does not necessarily fulfil the state’s Human Rights’ obligations. ETB community national schools technically provide multidenominational education in so far as they provide religious education to all faiths and none. The problem, however, is that children are segregated according to the belief systems of their families and the programme they are using appears to be heavily influenced by one particular church. Moreover, during the development of these primary schools, the government made a deal that Catholic education would have a privileged place in these schools so no matter how few Catholic children were in the schools, they would be looked after in terms of faith formation. Religion classes seem to take the form where everyone learns some sort of theme together then the children are divided into two groups: those who believe in one god and those who believe in zero or two or more gods. Two groups sounds like interdenominational education to me.

Another term used interchangeably with multidenominationalism is  non-denominationalism. While the terms are very similar and politicians, in particular, seem unable to distinguish them, it is worth pointing out that by law, Ireland cannot have non-denominational education. This is due to the fact that the law (Rule 68) states that all children must receive religious education in school. Non-denominational schools generally don’t do this so they can’t open in Ireland.

Surprisingly, there are a lot of people who also confuse the term multideonimational with multicultural. In reality the main thing they have in common is the words start with the same five letters! There are thousands of schools in Ireland that are very multicultural but the vast majority of them are not multidenominational. It is curious to me when I am interviewing for jobs when I ask about our ethos, that many would-be teachers talk about how they worked in Africa or the Middle-East then go on about their experience of multiculturalism as if this has much to do with anything.

Multidenominationalism in Ireland is a confused and abused word and it was no surprise to me that Educate Together recently opted to change their tag of multidenominational to “equality-based.” No other school patron can claim to be equality-based no matter what sort of gloss they put on it. Equality-based requires that all children are treated equally throughout their time in schools and they are never isolated, segregated or separated based on the culture, religion, beliefs or background of their family.

While the government will try and excuse themselves for their serious breach of many of their citizens’ rights to the UN and try and bluff and bedazzle with syntax to the Human Rights’ commission, I think they will find that their definition of multidenominationalism will not wash.

Ultimately, it is time that the State got real about providing a truly equality-based model of education for all of its citizens: a system where no child cannot enrol in a school, no child has to opt out of part of the school day, no child must attend religious services because there is no one to supervise them, no child is made to feel they are a minority or less than equal to any of the children in their classroom based on their parents’ beliefs. Masking our abuses by abusing the term multidenominationalism is not only foolish, it cements the feeling that Ireland does not care about all its citizens equally.

2 thoughts on “Multidenominational: A long word, long-abused”

    • Steve. Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my article. Educate Together schools are Multidenominational but the word has been so badly abused, it has lost almost all sense of what it actually means. There are so many interpretations of the word that there’s little point in using it as a unique concept. Equality-based effectively does what multi-d has failed to do.

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