Religion in schools
The frustration of Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn over delays in providing for the needs of a pluralist society within the national school system is understandable. More than half of all national schools are in areas where no alternative school exists and all parents are obliged to accept the denominational education on offer. Elsewhere, Catholic Church control of up to 90 per cent of national schools is undiminished while the provision of a genuinely inclusive education for children of all faiths and none remains a distant aspiration.
Responding to comments by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin that a more robust collaboration between the church and the Department of Education would “make these things move a little quickly”, Mr Quinn looked forward with ambition to engaging with the Archbishop and others. Specifically, he noted the 2012 forum on pluralism and patronage had emphasised a child’s right not to receive religious instruction. In the context of preparing a White Paper on inclusivity, he regretted the Catholic Church had not engaged fully in the process and had not provided examples of its inclusive schools.
Representatives of the Catholic Church have consistently signalled their willingness to co-operate in providing for the needs of other faiths, where clusters of national schools exist. However there has been little follow-through. Archbishop Martin has adopted a moderate tone on these issues but, even there, concessions may be very limited. The archbishop has expressed personal unhappiness with a situation whereby all teachers are required to teach religious education in Catholic schools. His answer, however, was to transfer “non-believing” teachers to schools where they would be happier, rather than move religious education to out-of-school hours.
A growing demand for non-denominational education, along with the transformation of our monocultural society through large-scale immigration, requires a new approach. The number of hours devoted to religious instruction in schools, particularly in preparation for first communion and when children of other faiths are present, has attracted international criticism at a time of poor student outcomes in other subjects. The programme for government promised to cater for all religions and none but little has changed.
The church has indicated that decisions on school patronage will have to be taken by the local communities involved. That represents an abdication of leadership. It is similar to the Vatican’s insistence on the independence of national churches when things go wrong. Such an approach may buy time in preserving outdated structures and disguising the thinly-veiled power of bishops. In the longer term, it is likely to be counter-productive.