Primary Schools: Inclusive or Tolerant?

As most people know, there are a number of parents in Ireland who have been in the media lately claiming that they cannot enrol their children in their local school as they do not have a Baptismal Certificate. However, in the vast majority of schools, this is not the case. The Catholic church claim that most of their schools do not have a Catholics-First enrollment policy and that they welcome and include all children of all and no faiths into their schools. The word “inclusive” is most commonly used by denominational schools to describe themselves. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to survey Irish primary teachers about how inclusive their school really is. I asked questions to teachers of common problems faced by minority and no faith families. None of the questions were loaded and simply asked teachers how they dealt with these problems. I published the survey results last week without comment.

When I began teaching, the word “tolerant” was used to describe how denominational schools dealt with children from different backgrounds. It wasn’t a particularly nice word but it described the situation well. Schools had to accept enrollments from outside the fold and they had to allow them to opt-out of religious instruction. When it came to prayers or visits to church, these children had to be tolerated by allowing them do something else where possible.

The results of my survey demonstrate to me that nothing much has changed except that the word “tolerant” has been replaced with a new word: “inclusive.” It appears that practices have not changed at all. Being completely honest, I was quite shocked by the findings. Before I begin, the purpose of this article is not to criticise schools; it is to criticise the education system, which has allowed children to be excluded from, at worst, certain schools and at best, for 30 minutes of every school day.

It is impossible for a school to call itself inclusive if they are set up to prioritise certain children over others. An inclusive school will ensure that every single child will have access to everything that happens in the school day. It means that if there are situations where this is a problem, systems are put in place to ensure that no child is made to feel unequal or to be treated differently because of their culture, identity or faith.

inclusiveBased on the first two questions alone, one could conclude that most Irish primary schools cannot be described as inclusive. While 85% of primary school teachers felt their schools were inclusive, 49% of primary schools surveyed have a Catholics-First enrollment policy. The 49% was divided into two parts: 20% who stated that, yes, their policy was to always enrol Catholics first and 29% who said that it wouldn’t be the case as they were never over-subscribed: however, if it ever happened, they would have to prioritise Catholics.

Faith formation must be provided for 30 minutes of a school day in denominational schools. Many teachers argue that they don’t ever fulfil this, which isn’t really the point – the fact they are supposed to provide 30 minutes of faith formation means that there are potentially 30 minutes in a school day, everyday, that a child outside that faith cannot access. This is 10% of every school day – almost 20 days of teaching time lost per year for a child who has been opted-out. However, the situation is even worse than this. As the ethos of a school permeates throughout the school day, there are other times where faith formation occurs, for example, prayers during the day. In the survey 90% of participants said that they said prayers outside of the discrete faith formation time. It was interesting to note that in that 90% there were 2 options: a harsh sounding: Yes – this is a Catholic School and a softer: Yes, but I make sure to let non-Catholics know they don’t have to join in. 40% of the answers were unapologetic about the school being a Catholic school. On asking the teachers what they would do if an opted-out child joined in the prayers, 62% said they would ignore it rather than deal with the situation, which in some ways I can understand, whether it is ethical or not.

ffishWhile schools have little control over enrollment policies and whether they provide faith formation or not, one thing they could probably do to ensure that children of no faith or minority faiths are as included as possible, would be to put discrete faith formation classes at the start or end of the school day. However, the survey showed that 85% of schools provide their faith formation classes in the middle of the day! While this is happening 84% of opted-out children have to stay in the classroom and do something else.

Catholic Schools’ Week is a difficult time for families who are not Catholic. One event that takes places more and more regularly is a special Mass for grandparents. Thankfully 63% of teachers claimed that they didn’t do this as it would exclude non-Catholic families. However, 1 in 3 teachers said that they simply invite all grandparents and it’s not really their problem if they show up or not.

The survey brought up other interesting tidbits surrounding RSE and homosexuality. It covered other events such as going to Mass and what happens if a child asked about an opted-out child. Answers were varied but overall, it was clear that despite all of the very obvious issues, Irish teachers still do not believe they are being anything but inclusive to non-Catholic children.

joinsinMy favourite question was based on Joanna Tuffy’s assertion that in her school, three Muslim girls took part in her children’s Catholic school’s Nativity Play. She claimed this was an example of how inclusive Catholic schools are. I don’t think I really need to break down why this is not inclusive and how it is actually offensive. The fact that the children’s families didn’t complain and complied did not mean that this was ok. However, in the survey nearly 1 in 5 teachers felt the same as Tuffy. Only 13% saw this as forced indoctrination, while the rest didn’t think it was either. I wish I had have put in an “other” option as I can’t think of any other way to describe this.

This survey demonstrates the true reality of what life is like for some children in Ireland’s primary schools and while the above is my analysis of it, I am sure others would disagree and claim that the above is either not happening or that I am being melodramatic. Some would even say that I am right and the answer is to open up more multidenominational schools but I don’t believe this is the answer either. I believe the answer is easier than this and, while it might take some time to achieve, it is definitely something that should be explored. In my next article, I am going to use the results of this survey to suggest how we can make schools more inclusive to everyone, including those who believe it is a right for them to have a religious school system.


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