Primary schools in Ireland

under Catholic patronage

%

under religious patronage

%

Secondary schools in Ireland

under Catholic patronage

%

under religious patronage

%

The journey towards a secular education system

A question of choice and human rights

The HAI contend that it is time for a national conversation about how we achieve a modern, secular and equality-based education system. It is important to note that the HAI is not seeking to ban religion from school teaching. Its primary objective is to secure a secular education system based on equality of access where all children are treated with equal dignity and equal respect for their human rights.

Rights of minorities in schools

Because of a distinct lack of choice of school in their locality, many humanists and non-religious are faced with the prospect of having little or no choice but to send their children to schools with a Catholic ethos where educational philosophy is based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A situation where the ethos of the school permeates the whole school day and where religion is integrated with other subjects, amounts to a degree of indoctrination and is an intrusion on the human rights of these children. Equally, the timing of religious instruction should make it a practical rather than an abstract right for families to opt out of that part of the curriculum. Religious instruction could be scheduled at the end of the school day and outside normal school hours.

The Department of Education’s policy is that religious education is treated as an ‘optional subject’ at Junior and Leaving Certificate level. Schools are not obliged to make religion a core subject. Interestingly, Catholic schools have made religion a core subject. The supervision of students has become an issue here because inclusion in Catholic schools means that minorities that opt out of religion are not offered another subject. So you are left with a situation where minorities that exercise their right to not attend religious teaching are left without a class. In practice, the opt-out clause from such religious instruction is extremely challenging for parents as it presents a huge dilemma involving the singling out of their children for unwanted attention.

There is a clear issue regarding how these schools accommodate and respect children when they do not belong to the ethos of the school patron. The State, which gives massive support to the denominational sectors, should ensure that structures are put in place to protect the rights of children who do not belong to the denominations involved.

Schools divestment programme not working

In 2012, a government report recognised the need for change based on changing community needs and recommended that some schools divest their religious patronage. However progress has been slow and, although the Church agrees that some divestment is necessary, at local level it appears reluctant to cede power.

Of course, the whole divestment process was flawed from the start as the State all but handed over administration of the divestment process to the Church. The result was that Catholic schools denied parents any objective information on alternative patrons. The divestment process has not been handled in a sensitive and collaborative way.

The programme for government (2022) commits to achieve a target of at least 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030. Yet, since 2016, just eight schools have transferred away from religious patronage. The pace of divestment is painfully slow and it seems unlikely that the government will achieve their target. Even it was achieved, it's still a drop in the ocean. It would still leave the vast majority of schools under religious patronage.

The HAI wrote to the Minister for Education in 2023, outlining our concern at the slow pace of the divestment programme. The response received from her private secretary did not address the issues raised in our letter.  This programme commits to delivering 400 multidenominational schools by 2030, which is highly unlikely to be achieved. In 2022, only one school divested patronage from the Catholic Church, and the Minister for Education has not published any updates on the progress of the programme, and nor has she set out goals for how it will be achieved. Further, 400 is simply an arbitrary number, with no basis other than the optics of providing more choice to parents.

The Government now needs to put in place a viable and realistic programme for how to achieve a secular education system that is suitable for a modern Republic. Almost 90 per cent of Irish primary schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church, which no longer reflects the diversity of the Irish population. Only 5% of primary schools are multi-denominational and there are no non-denominational schools. The 2022 census showed that 69% of people were Catholic and over 14% identified as having no religion. The percentage of non-religious has been growing steadily over the last number of years, and is likely to continue doing so. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on Ireland to amend laws which hinder a child’s right to education based on religious or “ethos” grounds, as schools are legally allowed to refuse admission of students not belonging to their religious denomination if they can prove such refusal is necessary to maintain the ethos of the school. Thus far, the Government appears to have ignored the UN’s recommendations. The Government’s plan to address religious control of schools has been an utter failure and the HAI will continue to advocate for change to address the needs of the non-religious in Ireland.

Religious discrimination against teachers in our education system

There is discrimination against both children and teachers in our education system. Teachers are required to have a Certificate in Religious Education for Primary School in order to be able to teach in a Catholic school. Many teachers who do not wish to complete this course find their employment options severely curtailed.

The Employment Equality Act 1998 permits discrimination against non-religious teachers, by allowing more favourable treatment of employees or prospective employees on the grounds of religion. Section 12 of this Act allows training colleges for primary teachers to discriminate in their admissions policy on religious grounds. The training colleges in question supply teachers for the entire primary school community including children of particular denominations, children of no religion in denominational schools (due to lack of choice) and children in multi-denominational schools. Accordingly, this permitted discrimination is an unacceptable departure from normal equality standards.

Section 37 of the same Act allows hospitals and schools to discriminate on the grounds of religion in employment.

This Act was amended in 2015 on the grounds of sexual orientation and family status, to give relief to members of the LGBGT community, but the possibility for discrimination against people on the grounds of religious faith, or lack thereof, still remains.

Again, the difficulty is that such institutions, because of the common lack of an alternative in the locality, are providing what, in many countries, would be normal state services to the whole community and not just to the members of a particular religious denomination. For this reason, taking account of current equality legislation, this section should be repealed.

The HAI advocates for removing discrimination in our education system and promoting equal respect during the school day. All citizens of Ireland have the right to freedom of religion, and to religious non-discrimination.

You can read personal stories of discrimination against teachers and families here.

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