Living abroad, he walked tall. He laughed a lot, had a certain ease about him. Within weeks of moving back to Ireland, he began to keep his head down. He kept his coat on, fully zipped up. He got sad.
Aged eight, my boy started his life in Ireland in Communion year in the local Catholic school. He spent up to an hour a day at the back of the class whilst the rest of the students prepared for the sacrament. He was given pictures, often holy pictures, to colour in. When they went to the church, he was offered the Bible to read. When the priest came to visit, he stayed in the classroom. He just didn’t put his hand up.
The school was lovely. There was no malice in anyone. But my son felt left behind, different, lacking.
We moved him to a multi-denominational school the following year. We were lucky to have the option of a move, but it was across the city. He has few local friends now. He can’t walk home from school like other children in his community.
Is this experience usual? It’s hard to believe it is. Over 90 per cent of our primary schools are under Catholic patronage and spend up to 2½ hours a week teaching religion or faith formation; yet our population is growing ever more diverse.
Children have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction and the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 obliges schools to detail how they will facilitate this in their admissions policies.
The Department of Education says each individual school must determine arrangements which are most appropriate, having regard to local issues such as available space, supervision requirements and how the school organises classes.
“The right of parents to have their child opt out of religious instruction and worship applies in all schools regardless of the denomination or ethos of the school concerned,” he added.
In practice, however, surveys indicate that many faith-based schools offer little in the way of detail on opt-out arrangements. In many cases, say schools, they do not have the resources for alternative classes, so many remain doing the classes or colouring while others learn.
Opt Out Rights is a newly-formed group of teachers, principals, parents, and academics who are concerned over what they describe as the lack of an effective option.
It argues that the current system fails to acknowledge or challenge the reality that there is not an effective opt-out from religious formation. In addition it says the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s (NCCA) draft primary curriculum framework will not change this.
“The lack of effective opt-out is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as numerous other international human rights instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Opted-out children remaining in class is likely contrary to the Irish Constitution,” it states, in a submission to the NCCA.
The group says children who have opted out of Catholic faith formation lessons should receive a genuine alternative, such as learning about religions and/or citizenship. Such faith formation, they say, should be confined to a set period rather than the whole school day.
The latter point relates to controversy over Flourish, a relationships and sexuality education (RSE) programme of resources developed by the Irish Bishops’ Conference for junior infants to sixth class.
Colm O’Connor, a secondary school principal and signatory of the opt-out submission, argues that the current situation is unacceptable at a human rights level.
“It is so uncomfortable and traumatising for a child who is trying to opt out of faith formation. It is a public shaming. And even if religion was taught at one time across the school so parents could withdraw their children, it seeps into other subjects,” he says.
“So, ultimately children and parents have no choice but to be indoctrinated. This ‘integrated curriculum’ has been around since the 1970s. It’s time we changed things.”
Their submission also argues that, as per the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, "the State bears the responsibility for the education of children, and therefore has the obligation to respect the human rights of parents and children whether they are of religious or non-religious beliefs".
However, some involved in Catholic schools say they do not recognise this depiction of what happens in their classrooms. For example, the Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP) – an umbrella group for Catholic education – says its schools have led the way in integrating students from all faith traditions and none.
It has pointed to research by the ESRI and Department of Education inspectors’ reports which have found an “overwhelming majority of parents and students find their schools to be well-managed and welcoming”.
The CSP says it published guidelines in recent years on the inclusion of non-religious pupils in Catholic schools which made recommendations that schools provide students who are opting out with alternative activities during religious instruction.
It has previously said that independent research shows that parents’ wishes are respected and arrangements are put in place in the event of requests to opt-out of religious programmes and liturgical celebrations.
“School management and parents will have to arrive at an understanding of the practical arrangements for students during times when they opt out of religious education programmes and liturgical celebrations,” a CSP spokesman previously told The Irish Times.
Numerous principals of Catholic schools declined to comment on the record when approached.
One who spoke on condition of anonymity said that, in practice, they have been making extensive efforts to ensure all pupils are welcome and have been doing so for decades.
“One of the great successes of modern Ireland is how many people from different cultures and languages have been welcomed and integrated into Ireland; Catholic schools have been key to that and have really stepped up the mark,” says one Catholic primary school principal.
“It’s just not my experience that non-Catholics are excluded in any way or stuck at the bottom of the class colouring . . . most non-Catholics are happy for them to learn the patron’s programme, because at the end of the day it’s about love and understanding.”
Another principal, however, acknowledges that faith and patron’s programmes can be an obstacle, especially with the time dedicated to Communion and Confirmation.
“Our primary schools are just very Catholic in the language we use, in our rituals, in our school calendar. Our big events are Christmas and Easter and of course the sacraments. We’re just busy getting on with it,” the principal says.
“Most schools would be happy to change. That is, the teachers would be happy to change. You have progressive priests out there too. But they all answer to the diocese and the bishop, and the Church is highly sensitive to any criticism, so their hands are tied.”
He also highlights the practical problems schools have in catering for diverse students.
“We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the staff to send children into a different room, so they stay where they are. Some schools will allow parents to collect their child if we’re going to the church or we might have one teacher stay behind with them, but that’s about all we can manage.”
Many parents, in the meantime, are still grappling with these issues on the ground. However, wider change around the place of faith formation in schools appears, for now, to be bound up with bigger issues such as legal, constitutional and patronage questions, such as who controls our schools. Significant reform, most agree, doesn't seem likely any time soon.
Primary school enrolments: who goes where?
Catholic primary school enrolments
Multi-denominational school enrolments
Church of Ireland enrolments
Source: Department of Education report on enrolments in 2020