As part of the government’s Pluralism and Patronage Forum, which is supposed to ensure the human rights of all children, they tasked the NCCA (the people who write our curriculum) with making a new subject called Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics, or ERBE for short. This new subject aimed to teach children in all schools about different faiths, belief systems and moral education. It was not to be designed to replace faith formation in schools, which takes up 10% of all curriculum time, but to accompany it. In some ways, it could be seen as an Irish solution to an Irish problem or it was at best an attempt to give children in denominational schools a small insight into other people in their worlds. Whatever the rights or wrongs of this new subject, today it was announced that the Catholic Church is refusing to allow the subject be taught in their schools.
In most other countries, this would get no more than a shrug of the shoulders but because over 90% of schools are controlled by the Catholic Church, in effect, the new subject cannot be introduced. The NCCA have already decided that they must “go back to the drawing board” to find a solution to the opposition by the church.
My first reaction would be to wonder why the NCCA should alter their plans to provide this subject based on the opinions of any church, whatever its denomination. While the Catholic Church is fully entitled to refuse to cooperate with this new subject, it doesn’t mean that other schools shouldn’t have the opportunity to teach it. I can’t help but deduce that if any other patron body refused to cooperate with the subject, it would go ahead anyway.
My second reaction is that this is a major own goal by the Catholic Church. Personally, I think the ERBE curriculum is a terrible idea as it gives the power to denominational schools to further pretend to be inclusive to people that don’t share their faith background. Therefore, in many ways, I’m very glad that the Catholic Church have vetoed this subject. I thought they might have seen the opportunities the subject afforded them rather than their short-sighted view that the ERBE would “would confuse pupils” in their schools.
One of the most obvious things denominational schools could do with this new subject would be to manipulate it to support the ethos of the school. This would work very much in the same way as the Catholic church has done with the Relationships and Sexual Education programme (RSE). If one goes to a Catholic school, one must follow the approved Catholic version of the RSE programme, which disallows the teaching of any part of sexuality that it not compatible with Christian teachings.
This new ERBE subject could be manipulated in a similar manner by whatever patron body took it on. For example, the patron might insist that each lesson ends with some sort of message that while “other people” might believe x and y, we believe… For example, in a Jewish school they might say: while Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, we believe he wasn’t. The key word being “we” in this sentence. Subtle as it may be, the ERBE curriculum thus becomes part of the already unequal system and, at very best, tolerant of other beliefs rather than inclusive.
The ERBE curriculum is another useless piece in the Patronage and Pluralism jigsaw. The real solution to the problems we face with regards to human rights’ abuses in schools is to tackle them properly. With so many different belief systems in Ireland today, we must ensure all schools do not favour one faith over any other. Faith formation can easily be provided outside of school time and in centres close to communities. It is already happening perfectly well in many schools in Ireland where faith formation takes place outside of school hours.
In schools like these, the ERBE curriculum is already happening in some form, where children learn about different beliefs and ethics. There is no confusion. Children are naturally respectful and inclusive. They are happy to take part on an even playing ground where everyone, no matter what position they play, is accepted. By not embracing the ERBE curriculum, the Catholic Church have scored an own goal.