There were a number of stories in the newspapers and media this week surrounding the question of religion in schools. This topic seems to be rearing its head more and more often. The last explosion of interest from the media were stories about children who had not been able to enrol in schools due to the religious beliefs of their parents and the Educate Together school in Castlebar that couldn’t open because it was a completely unsuitable building.
This week there were three interesting news stories regarding religion in schools.
The first story surrounded an Iona Institute event where there was a discussion of a proposed compulsory World Religions subject for primary schools. The headline claims that a “‘Secularist elite’ [are] behind religious education plan,” which to my ears sounds very strange. I find the term “secularist” is used by the Iona Institute as a derogatory term. Combining it with “elite” makes it sound even worse. Those who write the curriculum aren’t 100% secular. If you read any curriculum book, you will see in the credits that there has been input from religious bodies. I cannot, however, comment on whether they are an elite organisation but I suspect they are not.
Anyway, the Iona Institute believe that it is “bizarre” that “a faith-based school would be required to offer what is essentially a secularist understanding of religious faith.” In fairness to them, they are probably right. I cannot fathom why a school under the patronage of a religious body would promote another religious body when religious-run schools are supposed to promote and nourish the teachings of their respective religious convictions.
It’s obvious there is a need for Irish children to learn about different belief systems. However, this really isn’t possible if one of these belief systems is preferred over the rest of them. This leads to the question as to whether instead of plastering over a problem by forcing churches to teach programmes against their beliefs and wishes that we might provide schools that aren’t constrained by these beliefs.
However, according to our second article, the secretary of the Church of Ireland board of education, Dr Ken Fennelly, thinks only 200 such schools would be needed in Ireland. This is even lower than the Iona Institute’s claim of between 300 and 350. The logic Dr. Fennelly suggests is to compare the number of people proclaiming to have “no religion” on the census to those who have “Church of Ireland” as their preference. According to his figures, they are around the same and since the Church of Ireland have around 200 schools, non-religious bodies should also have 200 schools. The biggest problem with this logic is it supposes that non-religious people are some collective body of people who don’t wish to mix with people of faith. I know this may seem strange to him, but non-religious people generally don’t mind mixing with religious people. They also tend not to evangelise their beliefs as they don’t have any. I have a suggestion for Dr. Fennelly, which I think might be an interesting one. Seeing as Church of Ireland schools tend not to do sacrament preparation in school and generally keep a lot of their religious work in the church, they might be interested in divesting to an equality-based school model? It would certainly be a brave move. The great advantage is that it would allow their members to continue their religious practices as normal outside of school time and it’s likely that their enrollments would increase as a result of being more open. This is, of course, on the basis that they also don’t think secularism is a dirty word.
Speaking of dirty words, the new Catholic education programme, Grow in Love, has hit the headlines for a very ill-advised chapter called “Mary says… YES!” The Teach Don’t Preach web site published a story addressing this chapter of the programme for Senior Infants. Although I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the authors of this chapter, it does not portray its message very well, and could be construed in a very different way, which of course it has. In the chapter, according to the web site, ‘Mary says YES’! to God ‘working through her’ by making her pregnant, despite Mary being afraid, confused and not understanding what was going on. I presume they might want to recall their books and reword that chapter.
In a week that should have been more about mathematics, it was a pity that most newspapers and media didn’t cover many of the wonderful things going on in schools during Maths Week. Maths Week puts a spotlight on the wonderful work going on in maths in schools and gives children and their families opportunities to see how Maths is everywhere in their daily lives and how they can use it to solve problems and understand the world around them. Unfortunately, the media prefer to focus on a bunch of people with Phds who are more interested in telling us what we should believe. Hopefully, one day, this generation of children might use their skills and work things out for themselves and whatever decision they come to, let’s be respectful of it.