Keeping religion in the home

 

Catholic, Muslim and Mormon parents of students in an Educate Together school tell Rosita Boland about its different ethos.

Gone forever are the days when the most exotic alternative religion to your own in an Irish national school was likely to be either Church of Ireland or Catholicism, depending on your background. While still far from being a multicultural society, Ireland is seeing some real diversity in its population.

Ahead of these changing times, however, were the Educate Together National Schools (ETNS), whose first school opened in Dalkey in 1978. The ETNS are multi-denominational, co-educational, child-centred in their approach to education, and democratically run with active participation by parents in the daily life of the school. They offer a choice to parents and children who do not wish to go down the traditional routes of religious-run schools. There are no religion classes at the school: parents are expected to organise this themselves out of school. Instead of formal religion classes, parents are periodically invited to come in and talk about their particular faith, especially at significant times in the religious calendar. There are also visits to varied places of worship.

The schools are State-funded and free to pupils, and most of them have waiting lists. There are now 39 schools throughout the country, four of them opening next week, in Balbriggan and Tyrrelstown in Dublin, Gorey, Co Wexford and Claregalway, Co Galway.

ETNS development officer Jane McCarthy explains that although the schools are State-funded, "the State has no mechanism to set up the schools". It is therefore down to the parents to lobby locally for the establishment of the schools and this takes time, effort and commitment.

Most of the schools start in temporary accommodation, and as they become established, get purpose-built buildings. At present, 24 of the 39 schools are in temporary accommodation. There are, as yet, no secondary schools. While there is a demand for them, there is a problem with resources and funding, and the ETNS are currently lobbying the Government over this.

But why are parents so keen to get their children into Educate Together schools? Parents of children in Castleknock Educate Together School in Dublin from different religious backgrounds, explain the attraction.

THE CATHOLICS

"Children spend so much time at school, and we didn't want ours to be getting conflicting messages at school and home. Respect is the key word in our house. And tolerance," says Ken Byrne. Ken and Nuala Byrne have three children, Hannah (10), Leah (seven) and Matthew (four). Hannah and Leah attend the Castleknock Educate Together school, and Matthew will also go there.

The children in Hannah's class are mainly Muslim. "That's the religion I would know most about," she says. When I ask her what she knows about the Muslim faith, she proceeds to give an clear and accurate description of Ramadan, the annual Muslim period of fasting and abstinence, ending with an account of the feast of Eid ul-Fitr, marked by the appearance of the new moon. At intervals, her younger sister prompts her, but more because she wants to be part of the conversation, not because Hannah is making a mistake. It would probably be fair to say that these two young children know more about Ramadan than many Irish adults.

"We've been to visit the mosque twice. And a Church of Ireland [ church]. And the synagogue," Hannah says brightly. "I liked the mosque best. It's way different from a church. I like the way you can take your shoes off - don't write that down!"

Both Ken and Nuala say that they have also learned a lot about other cultures and faiths through the contact with their children's school, and socialising with other parents. "There is an international food day each year, where people cook food from the country they are from," Nuala says.

"It's a gradual process of absorption over time," Ken says. "I do dwell more on the international news pages of the newspapers now."

They both think the way forward for Irish education is schools in the Educate Together ethos. "I think it's the only way the Catholic Church might survive," Nuala says, adding that it would be better to have religion in the home rather than the schools. "The drop in vocations to the Catholic Church hasn't been caused by Educate Together schools."

If there was a secondary Educate Together school, they would send their children on it it. "But at least in primary, they have been given a good grounding," Ken says.

"If they leave primary school being confident, tolerant and respectful of other people and other cultures, we feel they will have had a great start in life," Nuala adds.

THE MORMONS

"My children don't get ridiculed or teased at school for their beliefs, as I did," says Derek Sharp, who was raised by his mother as a Mormon in Dublin. "You don't want to be seen to be different, or to stand out, when you are a child, but as a Mormon in an all-Catholic school, I did stand out." Derek's wife Vanessa, from Arizona, is also a Mormon. Their children, Julia (seven), and Brandon (six) attend the Castleknock Educate Together school, and in time, Meg (three) and Evan (11 months) will also go.

"The difference between us and Catholics is that they talk about Jesus when he is dead and we talk about him when he is alive, which is nicer," Julia declares.

"When you can punish your children by saying to them if they misbehave that they won't be going to school - that's a big change from my day," Derek says. "In my day, going to school was the punishment!"

"I love the way the school is so open to other cultures. When you walk into the school, the first thing you see are the national flags of the all the countries the children are from," Vanessa says. "If you start with children, in making them accept other cultures, then later maybe we won't have the problems we have now. Even if it wasn't free, we would still pay to send the children to the Educate Together school, because we like the ethos so much."

Vanessa volunteered to be one of parental escorts when Julia's class went to visit the mosque. "I ended up learning a lot too as a result," she says.

Because their children are so young, Vanessa and Derek don't get out much to socialise with other parents, but they're happy that their children have contact with other cultures, even if they don't always have the time themselves.

"Ireland is like the US was in the 1800s," Derek offers. "Lots of people from all over the world are coming here to work; they see Ireland as a place to make money, stay for a while, go home again. Some will stay. We have to adapt to all those new cultures accordingly."

THE MUSLIMS The Bakhshis epitomise the way Ireland has - however slowly - adapted to a world that is increasingly mobile, due to economics and political problems. Zekria Bakhshi, a gynaecologist in Kabul, also worked as a translator for international journalists from time to time. He was with photographer Steve McCurry on his six-month journey around Afghanistan 23 years ago for National Geographic. One of the pictures taken at that time, of a 12-year-old Afghan refugee, a girl with startling green eyes, became a classic image.

Later, he worked with BBC journalist, John Simpson, and was with him when Simpson interviewed Osama bin Laden. Caught by mistake on camera, the footage of him was seen by the Taliban and his life was threatened. Zekria had to flee for his life, with his wife Najia and their children, Waslat and Hares.

They lived in Peshawar for almost three years, "just waiting to get out" until, through Simpson's contact with Ireland (he has a house here), and his lobbying on behalf of the Bakhshis, they were helped get visas.

They are now Irish citizens, as are their three other children, Shahzad (eight), Negah (five) and Neghat (18 months). They have been in Ireland six years, and the older children all attend Castleknock ETNS.

"When we came here, we had no friends, or family, or relatives," Najia relates. "But we had our safety."

Zekriacould not obtain his medical certificates from Afghanistan, as they were held by the Taliban. He had to put in three further years of training at Trinity College Dublin, and now works in Tallaght hospital.

Zekria, a dentist by training, has stayed at home in Ireland to mind their family. Initially, her contact beyond the home was very limited.

"To us, the school was like a family," she says. "Everyone tried to help us; the teachers, the other parents. Now we have many friends. I have learned so much about Ireland from them."

"Real friends. They helped us in a very difficult time. Their friendship is a very big happiness to us," Zekria adds.

There are now schools in Dublin that are all-Muslim. Did they consider these as an option? "We didn't want to send our children to an all-Muslim school in Dublin," Zekria says.

"We wanted them to be integrated. You cannot do that when there are only other Muslim children in the school. They wouldn't see any Irish children there. We want them to get to know all kinds of Irish people, especially when they will be staying here. In the future, when they grow up and get jobs, they should have no problems. This type of school will have a future in Ireland. Integration is everything."