Parents' wishes count on denominational schools

Tue, Apr 17, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:The reason for the enduring support for denominational schools is that many parents want something more, writes RÓNÁN MULLEN

SOME WEEKS ago the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges considered a proposal to discontinue the Christian prayer at the start of each day. The idea got little support.

Without holding themselves out as especially holy or better than anyone else, Senators felt it was vital to honour the country’s best traditions and to respect the deeply held beliefs of the majority.

In the end we made a change. A short period of silence now precedes the Christian prayer. This benefits everyone, Christians, non-Christians and non-believers. All can approach their work in a reflective spirit.

Reading the Report of the Forum of Patronage and Pluralism, I find a similar maturity and openness is missing. Its authors seem to assume that the main issue of human rights in education is the right to be free from religious influence.

It is hard to find any reference to the right of freedom for religious belief championed by the great human rights documents of the 20th century. There is no recognition that denominational education by definition needs to include the communication of deeply held truths about what it means to be human in relation to our divine origin and end.

For example, when a child, parent or teacher dies, a denominational school can offer a message of real hope by offering prayers or organising a Mass or expressing hope that all will be reunited with Christ.

The school will not promote what it does not believe, e.g. that the departed might reincarnate at another point in human history, or that since there might be no God at all we must just be happy that the departed led a good life.

The reason for the enduring support for denominational schools is that tens of thousands of parents, including many who wouldn’t regard themselves as particularly religious, want something more than mere toleration of diverse beliefs.

They want their children to have values they can hold as true no matter what life throws at them. They may want their children to understand that real love is about self-giving, which is a much greater calling than just tolerating diversity.

Their local Christian school knows how to cherish pupils from different cultures and traditions without adopting a neutralism that might ultimately promote indifference.

That is why, though some parents choose Educate Together and other schools which mark the holidays and traditions of different religious cultures without endorsing any, other parents will want something more.

The forum report rightly supports the divesting of schools where there is an ample supply of denominational schooling but an unmet need for schools under other patronage.

But the report writers seem more in tune, for example, with the parents in Portobello, Dublin, whose demand for non-Catholic schooling is not being met, than with the 100-plus parents in Ashbourne whose aspiration to a Catholic education the Department of Education will not currently facilitate because it wants some of these children to attend a local Educate Together school instead.

The report proposes to delete, not amend, Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools which says that a religious spirit “should inform and vivify” the work of a school.

Clearly that language could be brought up to date and the rule made relevant only to denominational schools, but the recommendation of simple deletion is revealing.

Also strange is the desire to rule out the possibility that, where there might be a shortage of places, a denominational school might give preference to a child of that denomination or to someone who wants to opt into an education according to those values.

Here, fears about the possible ghettoisation of immigrant communities could be addressed by agreeing a quota for intake of non-Irish nationals. But the report seems to want something more.

Does it want a level of departmental diktat, unprecedented even by the standards of more multicultural European countries, about the use of religious symbols, art and, incredibly, prayers? It certainly seems so to judge by the report’s recommendations.

There may be issues about the constitutionality of such proposals since they appear to undermine the right of parents to choose authentic denominational education and the rights of religious communities to meet that demand.

In support of its recommendations, the report offers the findings of a somewhat questionable consultation among 81 children. No faith-based problems arose when children were asked their feelings about “belonging in school”, being “special at school” or being “left out at school”.

Only when they were specifically asked what was bad about the way religion was taught, and what they would do if they were minister for education for one day to “ensure that all religions and beliefs were respected” (as if the Minister’s brief regarding religious education should end there) did some children discuss the downside of separate arrangements for Communion preparation etc. But those were pretty leading questions and, much more often than not, children were reporting positive experiences of religion in school.

It is now for parents, whose rights as educators the Constitution strongly protects, to express their wishes. We should be concerned by any impulse from the centre to control the flow of information. “All necessary information should be disseminated by the department,” the report revealingly recommends. “Other parties, particularly those with vested interests, should not be encouraged to circulate parents and other members of the community.”

Perhaps that is how things work in a statist democracy, but certainly not in a pluralist one.

Rónán Mullen is an Independent Senator representing the National University of Ireland

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