What will removing Rule 68 actually do?

One of the rules of National Schools that has been causing much debate over the last few years is Rule 68, developed in the 1960s. Last night, the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan announced she was going to repeal it in January. This announcement sparked a number of radio debates about the role of religion in primary schools. What is Rule 68 and why did Jan O’Sullivan decide to remove it?

The text of Rule 68 for National Schools is as follows:

“Of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject-matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.

The teacher should constantly inculcate the practice of charity, justice, truth, purity, patience, temperance, obedience to lawful authority, and all the other moral virtues. In this way he will fulfil the primary duty of an educator, the moulding to perfect form of his pupils’ character, habituating them to observe, in their relations with God and with their neighbour, the laws which God, both directly through the dictates of natural reason and through Revelation, and indirectly through the ordinance of lawful authority, imposes on mankind.”

Many people might wonder why a secular country like Ireland would have such a law as this. Many might even feel that it is only tokenistically followed in most schools. However, this rule effectively prevents non-denominational schools from opening in Ireland. It also ensures that, by law, all schools must provide religious instruction. (As an aside, Educate Together schools circumvented this rule by offering faith formation outside of the normal school day. As there is no defined length for a school day, this was possible.)

Some would say that removing this law is simply symbolic. In effect, it really won’t change anything in practice. Faith-based schools will carry on as normal and other schools will also carry on as normal. However, while the removal of the law is probably not going to make much of a difference in existing schools, for the first time, it will allow non-denominational schools to open under non-denominational patrons.

Apart from that, even the symbolic nature of this removal gives hope to many families who face discrimination in their primary schools everyday. It keeps the conversation going about the role of religious instruction and religious patronage in the media and in people’s minds.

There is still a very long journey to go with regards to education equality. Little changes like these are small victories for those who are campaigning for state funded secular education. They are small steps in the right direction. Removing Rule 68 on its own does not change much right now but it certainly doesn’t have any potential negative impact, unlike the removal of other laws that have been in the limelight recently. If the moves are all played in the right order and the conversation about education equality is kept in the public eye, this change may eventually have important consequences.

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