Faith-based education is a force for good

Opinion: Proper teaching cannot be an ideology-free or value-free zone

There is no reason to move away from an education system, which, certainly at primary level, operates with the approval of parents.

There is no reason to move away from an education system, which, certainly at primary level, operates with the approval of parents.

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 01:00

An air of weary defensiveness seems to permeate discussion among church people on the purpose and future of an educational system that is faith-based in any respect, let alone any structure that is manifestly denominational.

Much of the wariness is due, I suspect, to the relentless assertion in the public square of the idea that faith is somehow an additional, optional appendage to “ordinary life”. That is a flawed and disingenuous philosophy.

The absence of any echo of religious faith in the public square does not bring about the absence of all ideology or public conviction, even if this conviction is now in something other than any religious perspective. Very few people can live their lives with no convictions or principles; to do so is to live aimlessly, disjointedly and truly “pointlessly”.


Removal of the transcendent
We need also to remember that some of the most dehumanising political philosophies ever to exist have enjoyed the monopoly of the public space and even unrestricted adulation in the forceful removal of the transcendent from the psyche of the public place.

There is no neutral value system that is the default position for “normal” humankind. Religious faith should not expect to be the only voice to be heard in public. It is, however, a delusion to believe that the only natural state for humankind is to hear no ideological voices of any kind. Proper education cannot, therefore, be an ideology-free or
value-free zone, but this does not of itself make it narrowly propagandist. The education of children will always have some value-system at its heart. It would be dangerous if it were otherwise.

We need also to bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of the population of the Irish Republic admits to membership of a faith community.

A recent survey was undertaken within national schools under Church of Ireland patronage and it clearly indicated that more than 90 per cent were very happy with the religious aspect of Church of Ireland national schools.

As we seek to chart an educational future for Ireland, our starting point should be that there is at present no particular reason to move away from an educational system which, certainly at primary school level, functions broadly in accordance with the general approval of parents and is reflective of the religious demographics of the country.

An educational “mixed economy” is a perfectly reasonable scenario. There should certainly be different types of school, some of which will be avowedly non-faith in educational method, and others will clearly encompass a faith content that has real meaning and is more than a cursory nod in the direction
of religion.


Wider community
In origin, the rationale that lay behind specifically “Church of Ireland schools” was for the protection of a minority community within the state. The ethos of the Church of Ireland school is now regarded not only as of crucial value to the children of the Church of Ireland but also as of worth for a wider community, and for a common good.

Most schools under Church of Ireland patronage have an enrolment representative of a wider community. Far from an effort at proselytisation or conversion, there is now the widespread belief throughout the Church of Ireland that this particular way of being a “faith school” is a valuable educational approach for others, in addition to our own community. The ethos for which we must always strive is a wholesome place, sited at some distance from a crude indoctrination on the one hand, and a vapid, vague congeniality on the other: a “faith-culture” with a definable element of specific religious faith and commitment in the character of a school but also a way of life that unselfconsciously reflects spiritual values, priorities and standards.

At the heart of this ethos will be the RE curriculum and the place of worship, and religious education cannot simply be phenomenological in approach, as though “religion” were a moderately interesting specimen on a laboratory bench.

It is not indoctrination or brainwashing to present religious faith as something that is central to the way one lives one’s entire life; this is to fall into that trap that religious faith is somehow an optional extra in which an individual may indulge in his or her spare time if deemed worth the bother.


Archbishop Richard Clarke is Church of Ireland primate of All-Ireland. His second of two articles on faith-based education will appear in this column next Tuesday

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