A short guide to religion in primary schools

Over the last number of years, the population of Ireland has changed. One of the things that has changed greatly in the last while is the rise in the number of belief systems in the country. Traditionally, Ireland consisted of a population of around 99% Christians, generally either Catholic or Church of Ireland with a smattering of other faiths and none. Today, there are over 180,000 people in Ireland who describe themselves as having no religion and there are a growing number of other faiths. However, despite attempts from all education partners including the various churches to try and balance this out, over 95% of schools are run by denominational patron bodies.

There are generally three types of national schools in Ireland: denominational, interdenominational and multi-denominational. Currently, there are no non-denominational schools. This should make things easy, but unfortunately these labels are more complicated than they should be. The purpose of this guide is not to criticise or judge any school or organisation. Schools are perfectly entitled to follow their patronage. It is simply to outline to interested people what to expect from a school from a religious point of view and information on opting out if this is something one wishes to do.

Denominational schools are the easiest to describe. These schools are run by a particular faith group as their patron body. The vast majority of these are Catholic schools (roughly 93% of Irish national schools) followed by a smaller number of Church of Ireland schools and a handful of others, (2 Muslim and 1 Jewish). Denominational schools will provide faith formation during the school day. In fact, the religious ethos of the school should generally permeate throughout the school day. As most people are familiar with Catholic schools, I will give some examples. Prayers would most likely be recited at several parts of the school day, e.g. morning prayer, evening prayer, lunch time prayer, sometimes the Angelus, etc. Assemblies would generally have a Catholic message. Children also learn religious songs and sing these throughout the day, perhaps as transitions between classes. Religious symbolism should also be evident in all areas of the school.  Children also have opportunities to visit the local church for prayer services. Many schools also have choirs that sing hymns in church. Sacrament preparation takes place in 2nd and 6th class. This is on top of the 30 minutes religious instruction every day required by the patron. It is a similar set up in other denominational schools.

Most (if not all) denominational schools will welcome children of all faiths and none and most (if not all) will treat your child with the utmost respect whatever their faith or lack thereof. However, this doesn’t mean that they are able to cater for your child’s belief system. If a school is denominational, they generally must do everything in the list above. It is generally possible to take one’s child out of their religion class for the 30 minutes per day and some denominational schools might be able to cater for children during this time. Some schools put their faith formation at the beginning or end of the school day to make collection easier. However, schools are not under any obligation to do this as yet and even if they do, it is important to remember that religion still goes on throughout the school day.

Interdenominational schools in Ireland can be defined as Christian schools. The “inter” means that the ethos of the school is both Catholic and Church of Ireland. Many Gaelscoileanna are labelled as interdenominational. Like denominational schools, most will welcome children of all faiths and none, but are under no obligation to cater for children during faith formation, which goes on throughout the day, no matter who the patron body is.

Everything gets very complicated when it comes to multi-denominational education in Ireland. This is probably because “multi” can be defined in many different ways. Some multi-denominational schools teach religious instruction during the school day, other don’t. Some schools label themselves as multi-denominational but are in effect interdenominational but as multi means more than one, 2 religions count! Some schools call themselves multi-denominational when they really mean multi-cultural so be careful with that! We’ll look at some of the options that are out there (concentrating on national schools.)

Most people associate multi-denominational schools with Educate Together (ET). All ET schools are multi-denominational and you can be assured that faith formation does not occur during the school day in these schools. Any faith formation occurs outside of school time and is usually taken care of by parents and parish groups. Some of the older ET schools might still have some faith formation in school but this is being phased out and there might only be one or two of them still practicing this. Just check before you enrol. Don’t forget that “School Projects” are part of the Educate Together network and a full list of ET schools can be found on their web site.

A more recent addition to the patronage list is the VEC, (or ETB as they are now known.) These new schools were introduced a few years ago and are labelled as multi-denominational. However, VEC schools do practice faith formation during the school day. The difference between them and denominational schools is that they separate children according to their beliefs so children that believe in one god might remain in the classroom, while those who believe in more than one god or none go somewhere else. They come together for some general instruction using the programme “Goodness me, Goodness you” More information on this programme can be found at this web site.

There are a number of other multi-denominational schools in Ireland but you will have to check this out on enrollment. Many of the newer Gaelscoileanna, for example, are multi-denominational, but again, it is worth checking out what this will mean for your child when it comes to religion. For example, Gaelscoil na Giúise, Firhouse in Dublin follows the same ethics programme as Educate Together schools.

While we’re speaking of Gaelscoileanna, there is no one answer when it comes to religion in them. The web site, Gaelscoileanna.ie, claims that they come in all flavours: denominational, interdenominational, multi-denominational and non-denominational (though I didn’t think non-denominational schools existed in Ireland.) In any case, it’s best to check out your local Gaelscoil to find out their religious ethos even if its patron body is non-denominational. The list of all Gaelscoileanna is helpfully listed on this web site.

I hope this short guide gives a flavour of what a child should expect from their schooling from the coalface rather than in theory or from a government perspective. For those who wish for their child to have faith formation during the school day, if they are Catholic, there are thousands of options; for those that don’t, things are trickier as religion permeates the whole of a school day and is more often “caught” rather than “taught” either through song, prayers, religious symbols, visits to church, etc. While this appears not to be a problem for the vast majority of people in Ireland today, it may be something that surprises those who have yet to enter the system.

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