I’ve been following the recent discussions about unbaptised children accessing primary education over the last number of weeks. In order to enrol in a Catholic school, often one has to produce a Baptismal Certificate. If a child hasn’t been baptised, schools must enrol the child anyway unless they are oversubscribed. Once a school is oversubscribed, they can enforce an enrollment criteria. This is a list of who gets preference to the school. You might be surprised to learn that Irish schools are allowed by law to discriminate according to two criteria: gender (as there are boys’ and girls’ schools) and religion.
All Catholic schools will prioritise children baptised into the Catholic faith first. All Church of Ireland schools will do the same for children baptised in their faith. After that, it can vary and it can get very complex. Here is an example from one CoI school (other denominational schools’ criteria that I have seen are similar).
If a parent does not baptise their child, it is likely that they will be on the bottom of the list and will almost certainly not be able to enrol in the school. A petition from a parent and barrister, Paddy Monahan, has gained over 10,000 signatures, which asks the government to repeal the legislation that allows schools to discriminate against a child on the basis of their religion or lack of one. It has gained a lot of support from politicians too and it looks like there is a possibility that it will succeed if the momentum continues.
However, what happens to the unbaptised child who does access a denominational primary school? In most schools around the country, there is no issue with accessing the local national school. However, in the vast majority of cases, the local school will be, by default, a denominational school.
The ethos of a denominational school must permeate throughout the school day and the curriculum supports this. “Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.” (p58 Primary Curriculum) and even the Rules for National Schools insist that “a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school,” (Rule 68).
Generally, prayers are said throughout the day. Religious symbolism is in almost every classroom. Many subject areas integrate religion, two simple examples being Easter art or Christmas music. On top of this, every school patron gets 30 minutes per day to deliver their own message. In denominational schools, this tends to be discrete religious instruction.
Parents are entitled by law to opt their children out of this class but schools are under no obligation to provide alternative work or accommodation for these children. From reports I have heard from parents in this position, in all cases, the child sits at the back of the room doing different work.
Before I continue, I’m not saying that this is any school’s fault. Schools must follow their ethos and while the current system is in place, they can do so unapologetically, if they wish. In fact, I know that any school I have heard about do their utmost to ensure the opted-out child does not feel excluded. In fact, some schools do provide different work or try to keep things as inclusive as possible.
However, is it right that a child (whose parents have decided their belief system) should not be able to access every single part of a school day? Is it right that a child would have to be in a school where their family beliefs are potentially in opposition to the ethos of the school?
While many people are unhappy with this situation, there have been other responses to these issues and it’s worth exploring them. The following 8 points have been said or written on the comments of various web sites reporting this issue, e.g. The Journal, Broadsheet, Irish Times, etc.
1. The most popular response is along the lines of: if parents don’t believe in a school’s religion, why are they sending their children to a religious school?
I think this would be a fair question if there was choice. With 96% of schools run by the Catholic church, often there is no alternative school for a family. For example, if you happen to live in Belmullet or Bantry, you’re one hour from your nearest non-religious-run school. If you live in certain counties, there isn’t one school available that isn’t under religious control. What choice do these parents have and should their right not to practice a particular religion be respected?
2. This is a Department of Education issue, as there are not enough places. It is not a religion issue.
In some ways, one can only agree with this except for the fact that the department have tried to work with the various churches to divest control to other providers. Thus far, only one Catholic school has divested (and there seems to be all sorts of strings attached) and any others that are in the process seem to be making life very difficult, e.g. the school offered by the Catholic church in Killarney is 18km from Killarney and was in the news recently as there were no primary school-aged pupils in the area and thus closed down. Educate Together have suggested that an immediate divestment of 300 schools (that’s less than 10% of schools) would be enough to curtail demand for the moment. The Iona Institute agree with the 10% divestment, which they believe should happen immediately. Who is halting progress here? What have the various churches been doing to move the issue on?
3. All primary schools welcome children of faith and of none. This isn’t an issue.
This statement is also true. From listening to parents and teachers, all schools welcome all children once they are enrolled. However, as stated above, there are certain parts of the school day where a child does not have equal access to what is going on in the classroom. While no one is abusing them or being nasty to them, to be segregated on the basis of their families’ beliefs, I believe, cannot be justified.
4. Ireland is a Catholic country. If we were in [insert Muslim country here] you’d be told where to go with yourself.
Firstly, Ireland is not a Catholic country. It is a secular, democratic republic. The Constitution of Ireland states that the State guarantees not to endow any religion. Almost all aspects of living in this country have laws to protect human rights including equality based on religious beliefs, except in schools. Can you imagine being in a waiting list for an operation in a hospital in Ireland and being pushed further down the list because you happen to not believe in the existence of a god? Could you imagine waiting for a bus and being screened for your religion before being allowed to take your place in the queue? Furthermore, could you imagine having hospital or bus services specifically for one religion?
Secondly, if one does end up in a country that is run by Islamic teachings, then, yes, one has to follow those rules. These countries do not hide their beliefs and whether we agree with them or not is irrelevant.
5. You can’t just come to this country and try to change our system. We’re happy with it and if you don’t like it, go back to your own country.
I’m sure the above is said more politely but the message is clear: This is how we’ve always done things around here. The problem of telling these people to leave the country if they don’t like the way things are, is that very many of the people that are referred to here, were born in Ireland and are fully Irish. In fact, many of these people go back several generations in their Irishness. There are many Murphys and O’Sheas who do not subscribe to a particular faith and they are not happy with the system. What country do we suppose they go to?
6. We can’t forget all the good that Catholic schools have done for this country. In fact, they were the ones to step in when the government couldn’t/didn’t want to run the schools.
I don’t think anyone would debate that both Catholic and Church of Ireland churches did step in to run schools and there are various reasons for this. However, Ireland was a very different country then and it was not secularised in reality. (It has to be pointed out that many of these schools and churches did untold horrific things too, e.g. Sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, Ferns Report, Ryan Report and Murphy Report.) However, whatever way we look at it, in a modern democratic country, we cannot allow children to be second class citizens based on belief systems. Even if one child is excluded from any part of a school day because of this, it can’t be correct.
7. There is demand for Catholic schools because they are good.
This statement really annoys me as it implies that all non-Catholic schools are not good. It seems to stem from the fact that there is huge demand for Catholic schools in the UK for some reason. However, countries differ. In Ireland, we do not have a culture of rating schools. With 96% of schools in Ireland under Catholic patronage, even if we did have a rating system, when you have 48 times more schools than your nearest patron, you’ll have 48 times more chance of landing a “good” school. If I were a betting man, I’d take those odds any time!
8. I don’t know what the fuss is. I don’t see any problems.
For this, I ask the question that I asked during the Marriage Equality debate. Is inequality ever right no matter how many people it doesn’t affect? If we look back to the campaign, many of us voted in favour of two people of the same sex having the same right to marry. Many of us voted for this even though it didn’t affect us personally. I believe this is a similar issue. While the vast majority of people in Ireland feel that they are unaffected negatively by denominational education, does it make it right?
So, what is the solution?
Most parties seem to agree that divestment is the answer. How this will happen is where things get tricky.
I would think that the first step is to start with schools that are directly under the patronage of the Department of Education. There are a small number of these schools around the country. I believe that the Department could divest these schools immediately and sanction a small committee to help these schools change to their new patronage system.
Once this has happened, we will have a model for successful divestment (and I’m sure some lessons to learn) so we can start divesting any of the areas where this was recommended, using the same model.
It seems like the agreed figure is 300 schools by 2030 is the target and this would mean that an equality-based school would be no more than 30 minutes drive for any family. With a bus service, this seems like a reasonable start.
However, I believe that if there is a situation where an equality-based school becomes over-subscribed, another school must be divested in order that no child would have to be excluded from any part of a school day. This would also ensure that denominational schools would not have to compromise their beliefs and no child would be excluded from their school day.
On top of this, legislation needs to change too. It is offensive to people of different belief systems to insist that all children must leave school with a knowledge of God and that religion is the most important subject in a primary school. These must be removed from the curriculum and Rules for National Schools as soon as possible.
In this article, I have attempted to be as respectful as possible to all parties in this debate. I am cognisant of teachers who have to deal with these issues, many of whom do not have any problem with the current system. I am also aware that while this article focuses on children, there are a growing number of teachers who do not subscribe to a school’s denomination and this can cause problems in terms of respect and also in terms of any attempts to diversify the teaching profession.
I hope all this makes some sense and I hope it comes across in the manner in which it is meant. It is not an attack on anybody. It is a defence of equality.