How to make denominational schools more inclusive

Around 96% of Irish primary schools are under the patronage of a religious body, with around 92-93% of schools under the the Catholic Church. This means that anyone who does not identify themselves as Catholic has very little chance of getting into a school that fully respects their religious identity. There is little appetite for change in Ireland. While most people don’t agree with stopping a child from enrolling in a school because of their faith or lack of it, once the child is enrolled, no political party appears interested once a child is in a school and according to my survey, 85% of teachers believe their schools are already inclusive.

It is highly unlikely that anything is going to change, at least for another few generations as Ireland becomes more and more secularised. Most people agree that the solution lies in the Pluralism and Patronage document, which promises to give choice to all families wherever they are in Ireland. However, it is beginning to become evident that this plan is ridiculous as one can’t have a variety of school patrons in areas of small populations. What can we do right now to make our schools more inclusive to children of minority and no faiths? Based on my survey results, the following ideas might be worth considering.

[icon_font type=”anchor”] Move faith formation to the end or to the start of the school day.

Right now, 85% of schools teach Faith Formation in the middle of the school day. This makes it really difficult for parents to collect and bring back their child if they wish for them to opt out. Moving this class to the end of the day would allow children from different belief systems to go home and would relieve the teacher of having to find something for them to do. This has worked in some schools. For example, Stratford NS is a school of a Jewish ethos. Faith Formation is done in the mornings before classes start.

[icon_font type=”anchor”] Rather than saying prayers outside of Faith Formation, have a faith-neutral reflection

Currently, 90% of school say prayers outside of Faith Formation during the school day. By replacing this with some sort of reflection, all children could take part.

[icon_font type=”anchor”] Scrap Exclusive Enrollment Policies

This should be a bare minimum policy of all primary schools whatever their faith.

[icon_font type=”anchor”] Visits to the Church should also happen at the start and end of a school day

Almost 1 in 6 children must go to a Catholic Church against their respective conscience as there is no one to supervise them. In some faiths, this is highly offensive and far from inclusive. 1 in 5 schools ask parents to collect their children and bring them back. Nearly 60% leave the children in another classroom with work to do. If this was moved to the start or end of the day, none of the above would be necessary.

[icon_font type=”anchor”] Lose Catholic Schools’ Week

25% of schools ignore it anyway as they deem it to be unfair to non-Catholics and 62% try and adjust activities to be inclusive to non-Catholics. With almost 90% of schools either ignoring or adapting the week, it seems silly to keep pressing on with it.

[icon_font type=”anchor”] Be mindful that normal practices can be offensive

Most Irish people don’t see Christmas as a Christian festival anymore and it is true that it has become a much more commercialised and secular celebration. However, most Catholic schools do try to teach “the real meaning of Christmas” to their pupils. In most schools, this results in a Nativity Play. While it is unreasonable to suggest that Catholic schools should not continue this practice, it might be worth considering that non-Catholics may not want to be part of a play, which is a religious story. Perhaps, in order to include everyone in the school, the traditional Nativity Play could be accompanied by something more inclusive. This is just one example. Joanna Tuffy cited an example of 3 Muslim girls taking part in a school Nativity Play as a shining example of how inclusive a Catholic School was. We must be mindful of the fact that this is not inclusion; it is, at worst, forced indoctrination. Most teachers want to be inclusive to children from other backgrounds and feel that giving them a job in a religious setting achieves this, (10% of teachers give a job in a church to non-Catholic children), but it is really important to be wary.

Furthermore, we must remember that Ireland is not a Christian country; it is a secular republic, and we must respect that not everyone agrees with or wants to take part in certain aspects of the school day based on their faith or lack of it. We also need to be mindful that most families do not have any other option but to send their children to denominational schools. Finally, we must be mindful that because of our history, many religious practices are mistaken as cultural. I have often heard people saying that these children and their families must respect our culture. Whether one likes it or not, one cannot force children into religious dogma because most people see it as normal and part of Irish culture.

While the above solutions are only workarounds at best, they can make life a little easier for families that do not share the same faith as the school’s patronage. As always, when writing these articles, they are not aimed at criticising schools and I do hope that the above ideas might serve as possible ways for schools to be a little bit more inclusive given the constraints.

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