Ask most teachers who the best education minister was and you’ll most likely hear the name, Donogh O’Malley. He has gone down in education folklore most notably for announcing free secondary education in Ireland. The timing of the announcement coincided with Ireland’s 50 year commemoration of 1916 and O’Malley is quoted as saying that the absence of free second level education was “a dark stain on the national conscience.”
What is Ireland’s dark stain coming up to 2016 and will our education minister use the opportunity of the 100-year commemoration of 1916 to remove it? For me, it is very obvious what this “dark stain” will be: it is the right for any school to discriminate on access based on any of the 12 grounds for discrimination. Currently, in Ireland, schools are allowed to discriminate in 2 ways.
Firstly, gender: this allows boys’ and girls’ schools to remain single-sex schools. This doesn’t seem to be anywhere on anybody’s agenda for change and, in my opinion, I can’t fathom why anyone would choose to segregate boys from girls in schools, particularly primary schools. (I also can’t understand it in secondary schools but I concentrate on primary schools here.)
Secondly, and this is certainly in people’s mindsets, religion: Schools are entitled to discriminate against children who have a different religion to the ethos of the school. With over 96% of schools under the patronage of some religious order, anyone who does not conform to whatever the religious belief of their local school cannot guarantee access to that school. When over 90% of these schools tend to be Catholic, this makes life very difficult for anyone who is not Catholic. This has given rise to a campaign “Equal Access to Unbaptised Children” which has garnered several thousand votes on a petition and was recently lodged to the Department of Education.
While O’Malley’s announcement seems to have eventually revolutionised the education system with 99% of young people currently accessing second level education, in this world of 21st century spin, I can see a much less radical stain remover in the pipeline. It will sound good initially but the results are unlikely to have any effect on the problem: a bit like most commercial stain removers you’ll buy in your supermarket.
I believe, wholeheartedly, that there will soon be an announcement that schools will no longer be allowed to discriminate against children in terms of access based on their own or their parents’ religious beliefs. I think it will probably coincide with some big spiel about how the Irish education system was initially built on equality for all and while the churches have done fantastic work, Ireland is a different country today and it can no longer offer its privilege to its own and must open its doors to all, (I’m guessing it will go along these lines.) Anyway, the end result will be that all religious-run schools will have to change their enrolment policies and families will be able to go to their local religious-run school even if they are not of that faith.
While I’m sure this will be welcomed by the majority of people, it will only, in reality, satisfy very few. The vast majority of primary schools do not discriminate on access based on religious values. The current figure seems to be about 80% of schools who have never asked for a baptismal cert. Removing the right to discriminate will not change anything for these schools. In fact, I would argue that the Catholic Church would be very happy for the law to change as it is a mere inconvenience of bad press, which, if removed, will not affect them very much in the slightest. The removal of the law is going to affect minority religious groups: that is the Church of Ireland, Jewish and Muslim schools.
There is only one Jewish school in Ireland, for example. It is based in Rathgar in Dublin 6 where there is a huge shortage of school places. Given that the school can no longer guarantee access to its small Jewish population, there is a very high chance that a Jewish school would have no Jewish children in it. This raises several questions about this potentially bizarre and highly possible scenario. Church of Ireland schools are generally small and generally cater to Church of Ireland families and they will have a similar problem as will Muslim schools. Will the general population of Ireland care? I don’t know. However, it highlights the nonsensical nature of the Pluralism and Patronage Model that the government seem to have favoured.
Going back to Catholic schools, seeing as the vast majority of them welcome children of all faiths and none, what actually happens in these schools? We all know that discrete religious instruction happens for 30 minutes per day. Children can be opted out from this but there is no supervision in general for these pupils. Therefore, they must either take part in the class or do something else, either at the back of the classroom away from the rest of the class or, perhaps, at their seat. As much as I feel this is completely wrong, most people seem to accept this as something to put up with. Another problem that is sometimes raised is Communion and Confirmation year (often called 2nd and 6th class respectively!) where there is a lot more time put into preparation, church attendance and so on. This can take up full days of school on occasion. Having taught such a class in the past, I have first hand experience of the amount of time taken up by it. However, one of the mantras that I heard over and over again in my time was “Religion is caught, not taught,” and this is where I feel the big problem lies. Essentially, the religious values of any school permeate throughout the school day. Everything that is taught is supposed to encompass the religious values of the school. This is often very obvious, for example, during Relationships and Sexual Education classes, where certain parts of the curriculum are not taught according to the ethos of the school. However, it is usually much more subtle than this in the form of religious iconography, visits from the local parish, fundraising for Catholic organisations, daily prayers, etc. If you are a child from a different upbringing, it must seem like such an alien world. Given that 99% of primary teachers come from Christian backgrounds, a lot of the subtleties are not seen and are seen as “Irish” culture rather than religious indoctrination.
If the right to discriminate on the basis of religion was removed for access, the reality is that nothing will change, except that minority schools will most likely have to come up with some other way to cater for their flocks, possibly through after school clubs. Catholic schools won’t have to change much at all. Similarly, this law will have zero effects on schools under non-religious patronages.
All in all, this likely announcement, is going to be large on promise but will have almost no effect on the education landscape. The only thing it will do will remove an unpalatable sounding law and it will give a small boost to some minister’s credentials in some areas.
Unfortunately for this minister it’s not going to get the UN off his or her back. Ireland will still be in breach of Human Rights abuses. While the announcement will probably get Geneva off their backs for a little while, whatever government is in charge will still be at the table in the future trying to defend its position in the future. However, that probably isn’t an immediate concern for the current government and I’m sure there are plans afoot that will be rolled out in the not-too-distant future. (My guess is all schools will agree to joint-patronage with the ETB model.)
As I come to the end of this article, I am conscious that I haven’t looked into the other way that schools are allowed to discriminate by law: on gender. To be honest, what’s there to say? I’ve never heard anyone utter a sound on the media about this at primary level and I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.
Even so, with all these problems, I would be highly surprised if 2016 didn’t see this announcement and I wouldn’t be surprised if the hyperbole extended to claiming that they are removing ALL discrimination from the public sector and thus the final stain in our system. Of course, in reality, it changes nothing. Maybe in 2066, we might have a chance to look into that.