Education: A Foundation for Life
The Humanist Association of Ireland supports the view that education is a foundation for life and that teaching in state-funded schools should be objective, pluralistic and always encourage critical thinking. It should promote learning in all forms, be inclusive and develop a respect for learning, a respect for each other and a respect for difference.
There is a right under the Irish Constitution to attend any school receiving public funding and not attend religious teaching. Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution states:
Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.
The HAI and Educate Together have found common ground in their objective of securing a more equal education system that is inclusive and equality based. In May 2017, the HAI and Educate Together launched a joint initiative to introduce humanist lesson plans into Educate Together primary schools, with separate plans for 1st & 2nd class, and 3rd & 4th class.
The vast majority of the approximately 3,300 primary schools in the Republic of Ireland are church run – with over 90% run by the Catholic church.
Over 50% of secondary schools are under religious control.
Education and Training Board schools
Even where choice does exist at second level between a Catholic school and an Education and Training Board (ETB) school, it still does not guarantee freedom from religious influence. Many ETB schools operate under a religious ethos.
Employment legislation: Section 12 of the Employment Equality Act 1998
This section of the Act allows training colleges for primary teachers to discriminate in their admissions policy on religious grounds. These training colleges supply teachers for the entire State primary school community. Section 37 of the same Act allows schools to discriminate on the grounds of religion in employment.
Certificate in Religious Studies (CRS)
With the majority of schools under religious patronage, State-funded teacher-training courses advise students that taking the Certificate in Religious Studies (CRS) will assist their chances of landing a job. In fact, Catholic school management boards, which represent 90 per cent of schools, typically require the CRS as a condition of employment. The CRS offers knowledge and skills for communicating the Catholic faith.
The Irish State funds the education system
Through a series of State grant aids for school buildings, capitation grants per pupil along with the payment of teacher’s salaries. Nearly all schools are publicly funded but remain essentially private.
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.
There is no doubt that some progress has been made – the introduction of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 allows all children an equal right to attend Catholic primary schools regardless of their religious background, removing the so-called ‘Baptism Barrier’. Earlier in 2016 the rule that gave religion classes a privileged status at primary level was abolished. The HAI has a very useful guide for parents on the Education (Admission to Schools) Act.
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. So 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.
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.