Our model of religious education limits choice

 

The current ‘patronage’ model leaves the guarantee of religious and parental freedom, in practice, somewhat vulnerable to accidents of chance, writes EOIN DALY

THERE HAS been growing controversy in recent years surrounding the role of religion in Irish schools and particularly the rights of parents who do not wish their children to receive a Catholic education.

Historically, the State devolved the management and delivery of public education to denominational bodies, albeit on formally non-discriminatory terms as between different religions. Today, this “patronage” model means that parents in many areas of the State still have little choice but to avail of schools in which their children may be immersed in religious beliefs contrary to their own. There is increasing recognition at official levels that this status quo is difficult to square with constitutionally recognised rights of parents as religious and moral educators.

The recent report of the advisory group on school patronage – echoing recent Government policy – has recommended a limited rebalancing of the “ethos-mix” in Irish schools, but ruled out any “big-bang” divestment from church to State.

Thus recent debates have generally eschewed radical reform possibilities, focusing instead on how the historical (if comparatively unusual) patronage model might be recalibrated so as to accommodate the social and demographic changes of recent decades. The underlying assumption of the patronage model is that parental freedom of choice can be assured by devolving the public education function to a plurality of private bodies which can give positive expression to the different worldviews, religious or otherwise, in society. Thus it is now assumed that any shortcomings in provisions for parental rights can be resolved simply by diversifying the range of school ethos-types the State recognises and funds, in order to enhance parental “choice”.

Yet even in this reformulated pluralist guise, the patronage model is a very crude device for ensuring that parents and children may exercise their constitutional right to a free primary education without suffering interference in their religious freedom. This model may give some parents the opportunity to avail of publicly funded education in schools positively reflecting their beliefs, yet this is hardly necessary, as such, to religious freedom; conversely, no system of denominational patronage, no matter how diverse, can cater for all the beliefs that might exist in all areas of the State. Faith-specific school recognition is impractical in many circumstances.

Therefore, notwithstanding any possible diversification of patronage, the current model leaves the guarantee of religious and parental freedom, in practice, somewhat vulnerable to accidents of chance. Positive recognition and support for schools reflecting different denominational and other beliefs may accommodate the constitutional rights of certain parents, but many individuals and groups will not have the “critical mass” in a particular area which warrants State support for a school specifically attuned to their beliefs. There is tentative recognition of a “right” to non-Catholic education, but it is subject to there being sufficient local demand for alternatives. This makes a nonsense of the idea of religious freedom in education as a universal and “inalienable” right.

This illustrates a contradiction in our constitutional model for religion and education. The Constitution affirms that parents are “natural” religious and moral educators of children, enjoying superior authority over church and State alike. Yet under the practical system for delivering public education the Constitution envisages, these abstract “rights” can be guaranteed only in a very precarious and unequal way.

In a broader lens, the recent educational reform debate reflects a broadly transformed interpretation of the constitutional relationship between State and religion. The prevailing rationalisation of religious patronage in schools has, in recent decades, shifted away from any notion of the intrinsic value of religion itself. Instead, the status quo is now defended – and any radical alternative dismissed – with reference to the liberal, secular ideals of “diversity” and “choice”.

These terminologies have proven attractive to the most conservative defenders of the status quo. Yet “choice” – now the catch-all incantation of education reform to which all stakeholders must genuflect – seems to mean merely that the school “ethos-mix” should be adjusted to meet the shifting preferences of educational consumers. It does not guarantee that citizens can access schools in which they will be protected from the imposition of any unwanted religious or equivalent doctrines.

Eoin Daly lectures at DCU and is author of Religion, Law and the Irish State, published this month by Clarus Press

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