To achieve equal education, we must remove religious instruction from school hours

THIS IS AN article about school patronage and religion. There will be lots of statistics, percentages and raw numbers. There will be references to legislation and policy.

But above all, you will hear the real voices of those who are truly affected by the daily religious discrimination and segregation that is woven into the fabric of our schools. These are the voices we believe Education Minister Norma Foley has chosen to ignore.

You are treated like they are doing you a favor by letting your kids go there even if it is your local school.

Louisa, mother.

I felt like we weren’t shown any respect and treated like inferior people because we weren’t of a certain religion. I had grown up in this community.

– Shane, parent.

A parent commented on how good the principal was for letting “people like us” into the school.

– Susan, mother.

I don’t do religion… I feel left out when my friends talk about their communion parties.

– Sarah, 2nd class.

Effects on non-religious students

There are over 3,100 primary schools in Ireland. Nearly 90% of these taxpayer-funded schools are controlled by Catholic patrons, while another 5% are run by Protestant denominations.

Half an hour of class time is dedicated each day at these schools to faith formation/evangelism – this does not include daily prayers, regular trips to church, unscheduled visits from clergy, etc

A large part of class time is also devoted to preparation for the sacraments. That’s a huge amount of non-educational time.

One parent I spoke to said her daughter was in confirmation year but not participating in religious instruction. The teacher would not let her work on her project during religion class and instead insisted that she learn Irish spelling for the duration of the religious preparation period. One day, this period lasted four hours. What value does that have for a child, where does the education of that child fit into our education system?

The minimum basic level of weekly faith formation throughout the eight years of primary school is two and a half hours per week. In comparison, history, geography and science combined are allotted a total of three hours per week.

Absent children

Section 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution explicitly states “the right of every child to attend a school receiving public funds without receiving religious instruction in that school”.

The way schools across the country “enforce” this right is to require parents to request that their child be allowed to opt out of religious instruction. If their child is the only one not receiving religious instruction, they will sit alone during this time every day, isolated in the classroom (but absorbing every word of the lesson) while their peers sing songs and interact with each other. with each other.

The United States Supreme Court addressed much of this in the 1960s. The Court noted that the segregation of students during religious instruction “results in the imposition of penalties for misconduct” and that parents and children “might well avoid claiming their right and simply continue to participate in exercises they dislike due to understandable reluctance to be stigmatized”.

The School Admissions Act 2018 has failed to address the obvious problems with this “opt-out” approach. The law says schools must “provide particulars” of how they will respect a child’s right not to receive religious instruction. However, no guidance has been given on how schools should proceed and there is no monitoring mechanism.

Schools circumvent this problem by requiring parents wishing to exercise their rights to make an appointment with the director. Far from “providing details,” schools continue to impose on parents the responsibility to withdraw their children from religious instruction.

But here’s a thought: Why not just offer religious instruction after school on a voluntary basis? This proposal has been at the heart of Education Equality’s campaign since the group was formed by concerned parents in 2015. This approach would surely satisfy everyone – those who want their children to receive religious instruction in school and those who don’t want it?

The opt-in argument

It’s a simple solution – but successive education ministers don’t seem to want to make it easy. Which brings us to the divestiture process, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. So how does it work ?

In 2012, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector proposed divestment as a way to address the lack of multi-denominational schools. The idea, in short, was that some religiously run schools would shift patronage to multi-denominational patrons to better reflect the diversity of 21st century Ireland.

It’s hard to know exactly how many primary schools have changed hands in the last 10 years, but Carl O’Brien, education editor at the Irish Times, puts the figure at around 20. remember that there are more than 3,100 primary schools. in Ireland and around 95% are run by religious patrons. Emma O’Kelly, education correspondent for RTÉ, also notes the very small number of transfers and observes that they are more “tiny rural schools on the verge of closure due to dwindling enrolments”.

The now ten-year plan to tackle religious control of Irish schools has therefore been a dismal failure – and yet it remains essentially the sum total of government policy. It has proven to be a colossal distraction and a waste of time as more and more generations of Irish children go through an education system steeped in religion.

But what would things look like if the divestment had been successful? Current plans can give us an idea. Since 2018, the Ministry of Education has proposed a “plan” for 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030. Progress towards this goal so far is not encouraging.

There were no intermediate disposal targets for this process and no progress report. In any case, this figure only represents less than 15% of primary schools. The fact is that the local Catholic primary school will remain the only option for most Irish families.

Even leaving aside the ad hoc nature of the Ministry of Education’s planning for multi-denominational schools, is this approach really what we want? In its logical conclusion, what we are looking for is “a school for every religion of the public”: Catholic schools for Catholic children, Protestant schools for Protestant children, Muslim schools, Jewish schools, etc. This is presented, without examination, as a good thing under the banner of “choice”. The choice is good, right?

But what other Western country has built the future of its educational system around religious differences? Have parents asked for it? At heart, the Irish approach to education is segregationist – one where children only mix with those from similar backgrounds.

In reality, the government’s ‘school choice’ approach is not designed to bring about meaningful change, but to ensure that the Catholic Church will continue to control the education of the vast majority of our children at the future.

#Open Journalism

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We need to stop over-complicating this issue. Education Equality’s approach is fair and reasonable: All religious education in our state-funded schools should be offered after school hours on a voluntary basis. Who could dispute that?

Paddy Monahan is a parent and policy officer at Education Equality, a human rights group that campaigns for equal respect for all children in school, regardless of religion. The group believes that religious instruction and worship should be removed from the curriculum and offered on an optional basis outside of school hours. Their petition has reached nearly 7,000 signatures. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter or contact them at

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