Submission: Inclusiveness in Primary Schools 2013

Submitted by Dr. Paul J. Ennis on behalf of the Humanist Association of Ireland.

1. Executive Summary
The Humanist Association of Ireland wishes to raise some concerns regarding the Amendment of Section 15 (2) (d) of the Education Act. In particular, we wish to focus on how it fails to adequately address the needs of secular, non-religious citizens of the State. We are concerned that the act fails to adequately address structural problems relating to questions of equality in the Irish education system. Although we recognise the Department’s ambition is to develop a stronger sense of inclusion we believe the current approach is misguided.

Our major concern is that it overlooks a more direct solution to the problem of social inclusion. Such a solution would entail the development of secular schooling that does not discriminate nor separate children according to religious or non-religious beliefs. We wish to see the division between belief-systems eliminated such that there is a real opportunity to develop a broad secular ethos that transcends religious and non-religious boundaries but nevertheless is applicable to both. This is especially important for Ireland’s future development as a multicultural Republic that is open-minded toward all its citizens.

2. The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI)
The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) is an organisation that has as its aims the promotion of the ideals of Humanism and assuring the equality of rights and parity of esteem for those citizens of Ireland who do not subscribe to a religion. Humanism is a positive ethical philosophy of life based on concern for humanity in general and for individuals in particular. It is a view of life which combines reason with compassion.

3. Preliminary Concerns
Our first concern is that the amendment leaves in place policies that would allow for discrimination at the enrolment stage against children of non-religious or secular parents. The transference of patronage from broadly Catholic schools to different denominations and religions does not address this problem, but simply repeats the same model with the diversity of new religions existing in the Republic.

In attempting to place the burden of this responsibility on the institutions themselves the State has, in essence, failed to carry out the necessary task of ensuring that no religious group is allowed to discriminate against other religions or those who subscribe to none (‘having no faith’ as described in Section 15 (2) (d) (ii) (IX) of the draft General Scheme for an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, 2013).

We also believe that a revision is required of Section 7(3) (c) of the Equal Status Act, 2000 which currently ensures the right of schools to admit students on the basis of religious adherence. This is, to us, a clear case of discrimination that should not exist in a secular democracy; particularly in a state-supported school system. The children of the state should be encouraged to develop their belief-systems free from educational bias in as much as this is feasible.

We believe that the state will not have addressed through the proposed amendment the fundamental problem facing all multi-cultural and secular societies in this new century. The fact remains that in aiming to reflect the majority beliefs of specific communities minority beliefs will suffer. It is only in adopting a strictly secular, non-discriminatory approach that this problem can be tackled for only then the system would favour no particular belief system over another.

Here the Republic needs to envision how social inclusion can be ensured over the coming decades and it is clear that fracturing our school system into differing denominations and religions will be counter-productive in the long term. It will instil separateness rather than unity.

The best possible approach in this situation, one that takes seriously religious difference, is the development of a pluralist religious curriculum that emphasises a comparative and non-judgmental approach to both religious and non-religious traditions, the latter including humanism, atheism, and free thought.

4. Recommendations
We hold that eventually the patronage system should be phased out in favour of the ‘Educate Together’ model. The ultimate aim of this transition should be the phasing-out of religious instruction and faith formation in our nation’s schools in favour of a more pluralist and secular approach. In addition, training in education should be undertaken with secular bodies with no emphasis on traditional forms of religious instruction.

Ultimately the education system should focus on developing strong citizenship skills such that students are capable of navigating the various political, religious, and social issues that they will confront in adulthood. In placing the emphasis on becoming a rounded human-being the student is then free to neutrally assess belief-systems as they enter adulthood.

The school-character or ethos model should also be phased out such that discrimination on the basis of religion or non-religion is no longer pertinent. Religious and non-religious beliefs are matters of private concern and judgement. Our shared values must be the primary focus and these are social rather than religious in nature, as evidenced by the sheer fact of differing religious belief-systems.

We further advocate the removal of religious iconography and imagery from educational institutions. In the contemporary context such symbols are unlikely to represent the entire student body. In particular a suitable symbol for students of no religion would have to be included. Thus we do not believe that introducing more symbols can address this problem; rather it will simply exacerbate it. We believe the same argument holds in relation to any religious exercises.

A similar neutral approach would solve issues surrounding the exemption of children during any religious instruction or extra-curricular events, such as the Catholic Communion and Confirmation services. To that end all religions instructions and faith formation should be carried out by the relevant religious authorities, at times other than during the school period, and at places other than on school facilities.