Catholic Church’s monopoly on Irish Education is threatening School Diversity

Irish language and Catholic school: Colaiste Mhuire, “PRO DEO PRO PATRIA”, on Parnell Square in Dublin © Héloïse Vinale

90% of Irish primary schools are still controlled by the Catholic Church. And, even if a historic school reform was set up in 2018 with the removal of the “baptism-barrier”, children are still facing discrimination and most of them are receiving a religious education. The Church domination on public school is highly threatening diversity and does not reflect the ongoing changes of the Irish society. 

Irish primary schools are essentially publicly funded, but privately run. This means that the government pays for school construction and salaries, but private groups—mostly churches—provide the education. But religion has a huge influence on what and how children are learning. 30 minutes per day are required for religious instruction, meaning that for the vast majority of children the preparation for Communion and Confirmation as well as prayers is part of the school day.

In practice, Catholic Church strategy produced a situation in which control took priority over principles” according to Paul Brennan, a French lecturer and specialist in Irish studies. The Irish Catholic Church owns the majority of the schools of the country because all is about control. Several research have been made on the subject, and according to two academics, Matthew Clayton and David Stevens, it is clear that “toleration and mutual respect are values that are not restricted to religion”. School represents one of the biggest social institutions in our society and therefore it plays a crucial role in terms of social integration and inclusion

The authors argued that school is the place where issues such as racism, sexism and other “wrongful form of discrimination” are tackled. But to do so, giving the primacy to a religious education is not the solution: 

“It is vitally important that schools develop tolerance of ethical and religious difference and mutual respect. Yet, it is not obvious that prioritizing the study of religion will cultivate these virtues.”

Many research demonstrates that prioritising the study of religion among another in education is not the best way to inculcate values and virtues to children because it gives only one view of the world—in this case, the Catholic one—as an absolute truth. But denominational schools remain the norm in the Irish educational landscape. On the Cambridge Online Dictionary, it is defined as a school “connected with a particular religious denomination”. The Catholic Church controls indeed 90% of Irish public schools, other religious groups operate another 6%, while only 3% are multi-denominational—meaning that all religions and none are tolerated and learned.

Irish Primary schools landscape in detail – screenshot of a 2018 study on schools in Ireland led by Daniel Faas, Merci Darmody and Aimee J. Smith

With the removal of the baptism-barrier in public schools two years ago and the promise for more multi-denominational schools, the numerous discrimination against children that do not believe in Catholic faith should have disappeared. But it is not completely the case. Last year, an atheist child was discriminated by his Catholic school when pupils were attending a religious ceremony. According to the Irish Post and the mom’s testimony, the boy was the only child of the class that was punished with extra-homework because he didn’t attend the ceremony:

“He came out of school crying. He told me the teacher had told the class that children who did not participate in the Communion choir would not receive a homework pass. On that day my son was the only child in the class who was not participating. He was also the only non-Catholic child in the class. We are atheist and this is not a choice that is open to him.” 

This case is not isolated in Catholic-run schools, and even if parents can choose to opt their children out, pupils are often kept in or discriminated with a form of punishment such as extra-homework. The so-called baptism-barrier—which allowed Catholic-run schools to select children based on their religion and faith—was removed in 2018. But, according to The Irish Times, a large number of primary schools are still asking questions about religion and a baptism certificate in their enrolment forms despite new law that prohibit it.

With only 108 multi-denominational primary schools on its territory, Ireland’s educational system is not equal. And, even if the Minister of Education and Skills has targeted to reach 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030, or by building them, or by divesting Catholic-run schools into multi-denominational ones, it will not be sufficient in comparison with the high number of religious establishments in the country. According to a 1996 article written by The Irish Times, there were only 14 multi-denominational schools in the country at this period in comparison with 2.988 Catholic establishments. Built more multi-denominational schools should be a priority. 

Multi-denominational school: why is it better?

The NGO Educate Together which represents the biggest multi-denominational Irish body is the patron of 92 multi-denominational primary schools. The movement has its roots in Dalkey where its first establishment was built in 1978, it was also the first multi-denominational school that was implemented in Ireland. According to the Kilcoglan Educate Together School website, their aim is to provide an equality-based and child-centred education:

“The idea is to provide a school environment in which the spiritual background of all children is respected whatever their viewpoint. Our Ethical Education Curriculum has a specific strand which educates children about the main religious faith in the world (this includes non-theistic and humanist viewpoints). This programme aims to inform rather than instruct. It teaches children ‘about’ religions rather than that one is ‘the right way to think.’” 

Many studies have found that the ethos of Educate Together schools is the best one to learn equal respect and tolerance to children from all social, cultural and religious backgrounds because it teaches about religion instead of being educated in religion. “Religious intolerance is a particular problem within society, […] learning about different religions is necessary or especially helpful to overcome such intolerance,” asMatthew Clayton and David Stevens have argued. 

The Educate Together Learn Together Curriculumrecognises this need: sustaining one view of the world is not the best way to teach tolerance to children because this process does not permit to develop their open-mindedness. It closes them into one doctrine to follow and to respect whatever it can happen. For Matthew Clayton and David Stevens, inculcate such respectful values to pupils depend on several criteria:

“We are interested in framing a curriculum that will encourage tolerant and respectful beliefs and attitudes in pupils. Yet, that goal will be served by several different educational means, including the ethos of the school, the home-school contract, the way in which teachers interact with pupils, the extent to which the pupils’ voices are recognized in school settings, and so on.”

The Educate Together multi-denominational model follows these principles. Unlike in Catholic denominational schools, children do not wear school uniforms, they address teachers informally using first names, and above all, sacramental preparation takes place outside regular school hours instead of during school time. All is made to make children comfortable in the classroom.

The Educate Together’s principles – screenshot of the Educate Together website

It is much more ethical to learn about different beliefs and religions because it permits to develop tolerance and respectful values and avoid discrimination such as homophobia, racism, sexism and all the other forms. Religious education is not the way to teach these values when you are aware of the many pedophile scandals that have touched Irish Catholic-run schools through years. How the State can continue to ignore the misogyny and homophobia of the Catholic Church, and pretend that this has no negative effects on the children in its schools?

Why state-funded schools are still learning to Irish children how to respect the moral authority of the Catholic Church when most of the people are aware of the many sexual abuses that occurred in the country? Why are the public denominational schools continuing to keep children ignorant of any religious belief but Catholicism as it was the right way to think? This is not teaching them how to be tolerant at all, instead it teaches that children of other faiths are “deviations” from the norm. How to be surprised if they grow into intolerance and division? 

Why denominational schools still represent the majority of educational establishments despite a more diverse and less religious Ireland through years? A 2018 survey shows that there is an increase of atheists people in Ireland with more than 20% of Irish parent-age that are non-religious in comparison to 9,8% in 2016. There is also a dramatic fall in church attendance and a decline in the belief of Catholic-faith with 78% of Catholics in 2016 compared to 84% in 2011. Irish citizens also want less church involvement and more transparency in State-funded schools. 

Screenshot of the CSO Website

Schools have to reflect these ongoing changes and people’s needs in order to inculcate good values to children. Divest Catholic-run schools into multi-denominational ones should be a priority to represent Ireland’s diversity of beliefs and faith. Irish schools are out of step with modern society, and until the Catholic Church will continue to control the educational system, discrimination and intolerance will still happen and be the norm. A clearer separation between Church and State in the educational system has to be set urgently.

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