Recent revelations about the multi-denominational status of Tipperary Education and Training Board schools has sparked criticism of the role of religion in Irish state-run schools. The issue of religion and education in Ireland has become increasingly contentious over recent decades. Some have questioned whether religion has a place in education, while others maintain that the moral training that comes with religious education should be maintained. This week we examine the arguments on both sides.
The Roman Catholic Religion has been woven into Irish identity for hundreds of years. For almost four hundred years of British Rule, the Church of Ireland was the official religion of the state, despite the vast majority of the population subscribing to Roman Catholicism. In 1937, almost two decades after Ireland became a Free State, Eamon de Valera, a devout Catholic himself, introduced a new constitution in which Catholicism was favoured as the official religion of the state. After centuries of persecution, it was partially an act of defiance on de Valera’s part, a marker of Irish identity, and therefore a signifier of Irish sovereignty to the world.
But much can change in a few decades, and the number of people in Ireland identifying as Catholic is dropping dramatically. Between the census of 2011 and the census of 2016 alone, there has been a 6% drop in citizens identifying as Catholic, leaving the overall number of self-identified Catholics in the country at 78%, while the figure for Limerick comes in at 83%. While these numbers seem high, there are some who maintain that there are, in fact, even less practising Catholics in Ireland.
‘Time To Tick No’ is an organisation which campaigned in the lead-up to the last census to encourage people who no longer actively participate in Catholicism to state that they are not Catholic on their Census forms, even if they were brought up as a Catholic. The reason for the campaign, they say, is to minimise denominational control over health and educational institutions as they maintain that information gathered from the Census is used to justify religious “interference” in these areas.
The Role of Religion in Education
Irish schools have been heavily influenced by religion, withthe majority of both primary and secondary schools throughout the country under the patronage of the Catholic Church. Many nuns even served as teachers and some still do to this day.
Around 90% of Irish primary schools and 51% of post-primary schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church.
The inclusion of religion in education has long been supported by the State, with laws and guidelines protecting religious education in schools. Increasingly, this role is being challenged, although real change can be difficult to effect.
Rule 68, first introduced by the Department of Education in 1965, stipulated that religion should be prioritised, and should permeate daily primary school operations, saying that “a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.” In January of 2016, this rule was made redundant by then Education Minister, Jan O’Sullivan. At the time, the Bishop’s Council for Education maintained that the erasure of the rule would “not change the teaching of religious education in Catholic schools.”
Atheist Ireland agreed with the Bishop’s Council for Education, stating that removal of the rule without any guidelines that intervene with the current intertwinement of religion and education in schools makes no difference in practice. In an article published on the Teach Don’t Preach website in January of 2016, it described the removal of the rule by Minister O’Sullivan as “a purely symbolic gesture,” since all schools will still be driven by a specific ethos.
The 1998 Education Act allows schools to develop their own ethos with which to conduct themselves. School patronage is intended to give parents options regarding what kind of guidance they wish their child to have throughout their education. That there is a high level of Catholic schools in a country that has historically been predominantly Catholic is to be expected. However, the patronage system may not be effective when the religious beliefs of a nation begin to change or when a country becomes more ethnically diverse, leaving few non-Catholic alternatives, particularly in rural areas. This is the challenge that many parents, and the government currently face.
Just two weeks ago, it emerged, due to documents obtained from Atheist Ireland using the Freedom of Information Act, that some of the Tipperary ETB schools, though supposedly multi-denominational, operate under a Catholic ethos. This was communicated to principals of the schools by the Chief Executive of the TETB, FionualaMcGeever,in a meeting in June 2015. They were told that “the Christian belief, ethos and characteristic spirit of our schools is Catholic and this needs to be addressed in all policies,”even though the ETB body is run by the state and ostensibly secular.
The documents described how students who are not Catholic must sit through religion class, though they do not have to participate. For a student to opt out of the classes, the principal must receive an opt-out request from the child’s parents in writing. These students are not allowed put in head phones to listen to music, nor are they allowed do their homework or any other course work within this time. The only other choice is to have a parent or guardian sign them out at the beginning of class, and sign them back in when the class is over. This option is likely not feasible for working parents.
The revelations seem to contradict the ethos on the TETB website, which welcomes all children, regardless of faith. However, McGeever does not see how having a predominant Catholic ethos interferes with the multi-denominational status of the schools. Speaking to RTÉ, McGeever said that she believes the two concepts can co-exist.
Minister for Education, Richard Bruton appears to disagree with Ms. McGeever. He has stated that an alternative option must be substituted for non-Catholic students and that the schools should not operate under a Catholic ethos. He says that guidelines for this alternative will be introduced but that the form these alternatives take will ultimately be at the discretion of the schools. The Department of Education says that the guidelines could be introduced by the end of the year.
Yet the Citizen’s Information website describes how a child does not have to participate in religious instruction in state aided schools, but that “in practice,” time can be set aside for religious class from which any parent may remove their child.
It also says that “the nature of the curriculum is such that there is not generally a rigid divide between subjects and the school ethos tends to pervade all subjects.” This backs up Ms. McGeever’s understanding of the situation.
In September, the ETBI announced that it hopes to phase out the practice of formal religious ceremonies, such as the sacraments, in state-run primary schools. Bruton said he supported this decision at the time, indicating that he is aware of the prevailing ethos of Catholicism in public primary schools at least. In these schools, parents could request the inclusion of formal religious events up until the announcement from the ETBI was made.
George O’Callaghan, Chief Executive of the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board, welcomed an announcement by Bruton in February of this year to open up more multi-denominational primary schools in response to parental demand. O’Callaghan told the Clare Herald at the time that they will be focusing on areas in which “there may be limited choice of primary schools outside of those with religious patrons.” But with the recent confusion regarding what ‘multi-denominational school’ means in practice in ETB schools, parents could be forgiven for wondering what exactly this might mean. At the time of publication, O’Callaghan had not responded to requests for comment on this issue.
While the government cannot revoke or interfere with the patronage of established schools, they can exercise as much control as the constitution allows in state-run schools. They can also increase funding for schools whose patronage is in demand. Educate Together is one such patron, whose ethos is that of diversity and equality. They are a multi-denominational organisation, which they define as “all children having equal rights of access to the school, and children of all social, cultural, and religious backgrounds being equally respected.”
A spokesperson for Educate Together, Niamh McGarry, told Limerick Life that “there is an extremely high demand for more Educate Together second-level schools around Ireland.” She said that four secondary schools will be opened in Limerick and Dublin in 2018 but even with these, and other schools already established throughout the country, “these schools go a very small way to meeting the demand.” She elaborated on Mr. Bruton’s announcement last November to improve support in the establishment of new schools: to allow early appointment of a principal to aid set-up, as well as “payment of pre-opening capitation funding” for the new schools.” The funding consists of €15,000 for primary schools, and €25,000 for post primary. She said that the patron may also seek re-imbursement for extra pre-opening costs after the school is established if evidence and details of these costs can be provided.
The main concern, however, is accommodation. She said that new projects are requested in response to “detailed analysis of demographic need and existing school capacity” and that the organisation is “uncertain” as to why there should be a delay between announcement of a new school and acquisition of a site for it. Bruton addressed this issue in the Dail last month, stating that the delays are “in the vast majority of cases, outside the department’s control.” McGarry said that the patronage process should instead commence when there is “certainty on the location of the school to be opened” if this issue is to be avoided.
Change for Catholic Schools
Members of the Catholic clergy have expressed concern regarding recent challenges to the religious status of schools. This year, the so-called ‘Baptism Barrier’ was removed by Mr. Bruton. Prior to this, children who had not been baptised risked being denied a place in a school over a child who had been baptised, even if the unbaptised child lived closer to the school than the baptised one. With 2,802 primary schools still under the patronage of the Catholic Church, according to figures from the Department of Education, non-Catholic children could potentially have been excluded unless parents buckled under the pressure to have them baptised.No limitations on admissions were implemented against minority religions since, in some areas, these schools may already risk being under-subscribed by children of the faith corresponding to the ethos of such schools. Some members of the Catholic Clergy say that this is discriminatory, with the education office of Catholic bishops saying at the time that Catholic parents will not be treated equally to parents of other faiths as a result.
t a conference on education in Dublin last month, Archbishop Eamon Martin said that current educational policy in Ireland may “dilute the right of parents to have access to a school which unashamedly and intentionally lives by a faith-based ethos.” He fears that an “increasing numbers of Catholic children are no longer attending Catholic schools.” He believes that it is reasonable that admissions criteria reflect the faith of the local population but that the removal of the ‘Baptism Barrier’ will deprive some of a Catholic education. Despite this, he said that Catholic schools aim to be welcoming and respectful of students from all religious and ideological backgrounds.
He believes that there is significant reason to be concerned that community support for families of the faith will be removed. He said that parents, “who are the first educators of their children in faith,” will have to decide what their priorities are. He also noted that recent changes to educational policy may be the “catalysts to restore the core responsibility” of faith to parents and families.
It is clear that the Ireland De Valera envisaged has changed significantly, including its attitude to religion. It seems inevitable that our education policies will follow suit.