State secondary schools face a major challenge in providing clarity to pupils and parents over the place of religion in their schools, according to an internal draft review.
While the State’s 270 schools run by local Education and Training Boards (ETBs) – formerly vocational schools – are described as multidenominational, an internal report questions whether this is the case for many.
The “core values and characteristic spirit” review notes that there is a “wide range of attitudes to and arrangements for religion” in schools.
It notes that just over a quarter of ETB schools are "designated schools" with legally-binding agreements or deeds of trust with the Catholic Church which oblige schools to hire chaplains and provide religious instruction and worship for Catholic pupils.
These schools typically came about through the amalgamation of a number of vocational and church-run schools in some areas.
While the majority of State secondary schools are under the sole patronage of ETBs and do not have legal agreements with the church, the review finds that Catholic practices are also normalised within the life of many of these schools.
For example, the review notes that many “non-designated” schools had graduation Masses, symbols from the Catholic faith only, and visits from Catholic religious representatives.
In addition, the majority of these non-designated schools reported that the local diocesan examiners visited the school to meet the principal or religion teachers or both.
Many reported that the diocesan examiners looked for evidence of the amount of religion classes per week that were on the timetable, while others reported that diocesan officials provided training for religious teachers,
“Some ETB schools reported being sent surveys by diocesan advisors seeking information on the names and qualifications of RE [religion] teachers, numbers of periods per week of RE etc. Many questioned the purpose of these surveys and the appropriateness of them being sent to ‘non-designated’ schools,” the report notes.
It adds that many principals expressed a concern about the lack of clarity in relation to the roles that the diocesan officials or local parish workers should play in their schools.
“Many questioned the appropriateness of one religious group having more access to their schools over others. There was a strong demand for these roles to be clarified at both local and national level,” the review notes.
In a statement, Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) confirmed that it is aiming to develop a "patron's framework" that will clearly articulate the core values of the ETB school sector and what is meant by them.
It said the draft core values report seen by The Irish Times was a “ very early draft” of a report based on its core values review process, which has involved consultations with principals and deputy principals of all ETB schools.
It says a revised version of this document will be used as a consultation document with the sector throughout the year ahead.
Nessa White, ETBI’s general secretary, said clarity over the multidenominational status of the ETB community national school model may have a large influence in developing a wider approach for the sector.
In these primary schools, she said, all faith formation has been moved outside the school day and all children receive the same “multibelief and values education curriculum”.
She acknowledged, however, the difficulties the sector faced in defining what is meant by “multidenominational” in ETB schools with legal agreements with religious patrons.
Ms White said her organisation will continue to lead its core values review process over the coming months and hopes to develop a framework by June 2020.