Change One Thing: Put the rights of children first
It’s time to change the way the system thinks of children and their needs and rights
The reality of choice: the lack of availability of Educate Together schools is presenting problems for an increasing number of families.
One thing to change? It must be the way the education system thinks of children and their needs and rights. We need to ask ourselves if the system starts from the needs of children or the needs of its established stakeholders.
As children do not choose their parents, no child should be disadvantaged as a result of their social, cultural or religious background in school.
The reality is we still have a system that profoundly disadvantages any child whose family thinks differently from the majority education provider, the Catholic Church. If anyone still believes this is not a significant issue, they should read the detail of the consultation with children carried out last year by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism. Reading children’s own words, it is impossible not to be moved by their feelings of alienation and isolation.
The founding proclamation of our State charges us with “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”, yet we have an education system in which 96 per cent of primary schools are controlled by either Catholic or Protestant churches. This is out of sync with the profile of our population and the needs of society. There are no multi-denominational schools in counties Mayo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Longford, Cavan, Monaghan or Tipperary. In areas where Educate Together multi-
denominational schools have been established, they quickly become oversubscribed. This lack of choice creates multiple situations in which families are forced to send their children to Catholic schools because there is no other option.
This is wrong for children and parents, and is no benefit for Catholic education either. Although parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious content in the school programme, this almost always presents real practical difficulties, and in most cases, they choose not to insist, because of the risk that their child might feel excluded. As a result, the issue remains hidden. Parents and pupils remain quietly isolated from the stated values of the school. This is an infringement of the human rights of the children concerned.
The lack of availability of Educate Together schools is presenting problems for an increasing number of families with minority beliefs. However, it is a mistake to think this is purely a matter for minorities. It also presents problems for families from majority religious communities who believe that people should be treated equally irrespective of religion.
Rights and equality
From our observations, about half the families currently choosing Educate Together schools are Catholic and send their children to “out of hours” Catholic classes. They want their children to go to a school that guarantees that all will be treated equally, one that bases its ethos on human rights and equality and teaches about different religions, while respecting the beliefs of all. They see this as a fundamental democratic value that is important in its own right.
I share their standpoint and feel that this will become increasingly important for the future of the country as our population grows and becomes more diverse.
Too often, the system puts the needs of organisations and vested interests first. There is now a tide of change in Irish education but for a growing number of children and parents, nothing will really change until there is an alternative in every area, operated on the Educate Together model.
If we could start seeing this issue from the perspective of the children involved, and guarantee them equality of esteem in the education system – in practice rather than in theory – this would be a huge step forward.
Paul Rowe is the CEO of Educate Together