Secular schools best reflect reality of changing Ireland

As parents, we are not about bringing down the system, just existing within it

The UN has criticised Ireland’s lack of secular State-funded education – and expressly stated that multidenominational schools are not the same as secular schools. Photo: iStock

The UN has criticised Ireland’s lack of secular State-funded education – and expressly stated that multidenominational schools are not the same as secular schools. Photo: iStock

 

In 2015, the Department of Education announced a new primary school for Carrigtwohill, Co Cork and invited applications from prospective patron bodies. The area, which at the time had Catholic boys and girls schools, has seen enormous and diverse population growth over recent years.

As parents who want a secular education for our children, we established Secular Schools Ireland and canvassed area parents to see if there was any demand for nonreligious and coeducational education. What we encountered on the doorsteps were friendly faces and enormous goodwill. Parents were interested in our proposed school model for a variety of reasons.

Some were interested in the coeducational aspect – they wanted their sons and daughters to attend the same school. Others were not religious and didn’t want a religious education for their children. Some were devoutly religious but a member of a different faith and didn’t want a Catholic religious education. Others were religious and Catholic but wanted a secular school.

One of my favourite doors we knocked on was answered by a Polish man in his 30s. I told him why I was there and explained that we were interested in offering a model of school that was “boys and girls together, and no religion taught during the school day”.

There was a pause, then his face brightened, “Oh, so like . . . normal school,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “Normal school.”

Another time, a pregnant woman ran down the street after us, wanting to know if she could sign up her “bump”.

In total, we pre-enrolled 98 children five years old and under in the catchment area. This was the largest number of any prospective patron body.

Excluded by department

We submitted our application and waited. In June 2015, the department announced by press release that it was recognising a different applicant as patron of the new school. We were stunned to discover that, despite the considerable support in the community, we had been excluded by the department – and that our application was not even processed.

Secular Schools Ireland applied to the High Court for judicial review of this decision. The High Court refused the application. So we appealed that decision, and this month the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled in our favour.

The court held that the department “made a serious error of administration in rejecting the application on the basis of invalidity”, and that Secular Schools Ireland had been “wrongly excluded” from the evaluation process.

The court also noted that, while or group was not seeking to set aside the current patronage appointment in respect of the Carrigtwohill school, “the case raised a significant issue of public administration and it is of real importance for the applicant that its position is vindicated”.

There is a significant unmet need for secular education, not only in the Carrigtwohill area but right across the country, which the Minister for Education and his department must now address.

The United Nations has specifically criticised Ireland’s lack of access to secular State-funded education – and expressly stated that multidenominational schools are not the same as secular schools.

No religion taught

Religious schools teach faith formation during the school day. Multidenominational schools teach about religion. Secular Schools Ireland will not teach any religion.

In addition to the standard national curriculum in maths, English, Irish, etc, we will teach ethics and social and emotional literacy skills, such as empathy. An excellent ethics programme was rolled out for primary school children in New South Wales, Australia. We would like to teach something similar.

We are not trying to bring down the current system. We simply wish to exist within it. We think that, for parents who wish to access a religious education for their children, that is their right and it is perfectly reasonable that they should do so.

However, for parents who would like something different, that alternative should also be available. Lefre de Burgh is a cofounder of Secular Schools Ireland (secularschoolsireland.com)

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