Why we should care about Ireland’s Human Rights Record in Education

Last week, the Irish government was given a major slap on the wrist for the way it is treating the human rights of some of its citizens. While the news mainly reported on the horrific nature of the Health Service, our education system was highlighted not for the first time as failing to recognise Irish people’s human rights, particularly when it comes to non-denominational education. Right now, there are no non-denominational primary schools in Ireland though there are a very small number of multi denominational schools mainly run by Educate Together.

Image from Irish Times: Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald faces a second day of questioning by the UN committee in Geneva. Photograp: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Image from Irish Times: Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald faces a second day of questioning by the UN committee in Geneva. Photograp: Gareth Chaney/Collins

According to the Irish Independent article, Layla de Cogan Chin, from the Department of Justice, said Ireland was committed to “providing a diverse system catering for all religions and none.” She continued to say that Ireland offered no obstacles to multi and non denominational schools in Ireland but iterated that  “sufficient demand” would be required from parents.

For me, this is the most troubling aspect. Measuring sufficient demand is very difficult because most Irish primary schools are doing a very fine job of keeping the majority of its people happy enough. I would be shocked if any Irish primary school refused to enrol a child from a different faith. In fact, most people are probably happy enough that their child is getting an excellent education, despite the half hour of faith formation and the ethos permeating throughout the day. In fairness to Irish primary schools, they make many efforts to include children of different faiths despite not having to do so. Therefore, there was no surprise for me when the report on pluralism and patronage in education came up with such a low figure of people who wanted a change to the system. The fact is, that despite the laws, Irish schools have done their best to adapt to the changing face of Ireland.

However, schools can only do so much. The law allows schools to discriminate against teachers and children based on religious beliefs. This isn’t the fault of schools or any particular church. It’s simply a law that is outdated and whether or not there is “sufficient demand”, it needs to change. Non-denominational or multi-denominational schools are, in reality, not very different to denominational schools. In fact, everything remains the same, educationally at least. The only thing that people would notice is that faith formation wouldn’t happen during the school day. Children (and teachers) would learn about different faiths and none and there would be no pressure on anybody to conform to one particular way of thinking. Those who believe in a particular faith would be completely free to practice this and, in theory, nothing should really change.

I don’t believe there will be “sufficient demand” in my lifetime for anything to change but I do hope the next generation of Irish people will begin to see the realities that the growing minority of people are facing everyday. If nothing else, I do hope these UN meetings will keep the conversation alive.



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