It was so much simpler in the old days. A crucifix above the blackboard was all a school needed to symbolise its religious ethos. But what do you do when your students are a kaleidoscope of different religions, ethnic groups and nationalities?
"We struggled with it, to be honest," says Séamus Conboy, principal of Citywest and Saggart Community National School in Co Dublin.
The teaching staff eventually came up with a neat solution: a space dedicated to all the children’s beliefs. Parents and children were invited to a ceremony in which they placed an artefact symbolising their faith or belief on the wall of the school’s foyer.
“Everyone was able to ask questions about each others’ faith or belief,” says Conboy. “Humanists, atheists, Muslims and Catholics . . . It was quite an emotional day in the end. Everyone felt they belonged and that they understood each other a bit more.”
Some 96 per cent of primary schools remain under the control of religious denominations, but efforts to secularise them have proved slow and divisive. But the new model of community national school, say its advocates, offers a new way around the so-called “baptism barrier” by ensuring all faiths and beliefs are catered to.
The system was developed as part of a pilot project in 2008 by the Department of Education, and there are now 11 community national schools around the country. The number is set to more than double within the next five years.
Its patron body, the Education and Training Board of Ireland, presents it as the ideal solution to the fiercely contested question of how to ensure our education system caters to all members of the community.
“We think it is the answer to the whole issue, really,” says Michael Moriarty, general secretary of ETBI. “We’re about reflecting the local community. We not under denominational control. Nor are we anti- religion. We’re simply about reflecting the full diversity of the community.”
Keeping the faith
schools, this model of schooling allows for “faith nurturing” classes and sacramental preparation during the school day.
Although children are educated together in a broad-based, multifaith religion class for most of the school year, they divide into four different religious education groups for up to four weeks during the school year.
“Respect for the plurality of faiths in the local community is balanced with an equal respect for those of no specific faith,” says Moriarty. “To accommodate this demand, we provide periods within the timetable of the school year when some children form into different groups for faith nurturing. Others can form a nonfaith group during these times, all in accordance with the wishes of their parents.”
Catholics are typically in one group, other Christians in another, Muslims in a third, and Hindus, Buddhists and Humanists in a fourth.
A faith-based breakdown of all community national schools (see graphic, right) confirms the diversity of religion in the classroom. The majority faith is Catholic (44 per cent), followed by other Christian faiths (25 per cent), Muslims (16 per cent) and Orthodox (7 per cent).
For teachers – overwhelmingly white, middle class and female – the idea of leading a class in a faith they might have little detailed knowledge of is challenging, to say the least.
Conboy, who takes the Muslim class in Citywest, says he and other teachers act more as a facilitator for group discussion among young students.
Then there are times when children’s faiths or cultures clash with some elements of the school curriculum.
“In infant classes, we name body parts [including genitals] so they know how to refer to them if they go to the doctor. For some, this just wouldn’t be done. It wouldn’t be spoken about at home. Parents have asked to exempt their children, but when we explain that it’s part of the curriculum, and the rationale behind it, they respond much better.”
The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, is seen as strongly supportive of the community national school model compared with her predecessor, Ruairí Quinn, who heavily promoted Educate Together as an alternative patron to the
There is a strong wind behind the new model. ETBs have secured the patronage of a significant number of new primary schools over the past 18 months, in particular.
“We’ve been in the shadows for a number of years,” says Moriarty. “But we feel this is a great time to grow. We’ll be applying for the patronage of new schools and we feel we’re ideally placed to reflect new communities.”
Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however.
Groups such as Educate Together, as well as organisations opposed to religious tuition during school hours, are much more suspicious of the new model. Some suspect it is, ultimately, a way for the Catholic Church to retain control of schools.
They point to records released under the Freedom of Information Act to RTÉ a number of years ago, which indicated that the church insisted to the Department of Education that faith formation in these schools was a "minimum non-negotiable requirement" for their support of the new model.
No other religious organisation actively looked for this, the records indicated, and some – such as the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church – warned against it. Officials in ETBI, however, say these records related to discussion about the model in its infancy.
They insist that community national schools have since moved to establish a strong identity of their own and receive strong support from a range of faith groups and parents.
There is no mistaking, however, that as far as the Catholic Church is concerned the community national schools are a more palatable option when it comes to divestment than most others
Last year, Fr Michael Drumm, chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, which represents Catholic bishops in the education sector, gave a clear impression that it was willing do to business with this model. He said at a conference that "patronage was adaptable" and he would welcome alliances with other patrons.
The Catholic Church, he noted, was already in partnership with Education and Training Boards in more than 40 secondary schools or community colleges.
In these cases, the ETB has typically given guarantees to the church over issues such as faith formation classes and ethos.
Fr Drumm said there was scope for mirror structures at primary level.
“There are already models of joint patronage at primary. Catholic and Protestant bodies are joint patrons in a small number of schools. So there is any amount of models of partnerships,” he said. “It should not be perceived to be ‘it’s just this way’; patrons can share with other patrons.”
Community national schools have not formally responded, although some officials say privately there is little appetite for such a move within the Department of Education.
Community national schools, meanwhile, have developed a common religious education programme aimed at all their students. The Goodness Me, Goodness You course material describes it as an ethical and moral education programme where all pupils together learn about themselves, their world, as well as respecting diversity and difference. In essence it presents broad-based themes to children on which all belief systems are based, such as community, family, seasons and so on. It is up to parents and their faith community, ETBI says, to deepen understanding on these themes as they consider appropriate.
Conboy concedes that community national schools don’t have all the answers when it comes to accommodating all faiths and beliefs.
“I think everyone is grappling with these issues,” he says. “The staff here is young, super-enthusiastic and many are doing diplomas or postgrads in interdenominational issues. The issues change all the time. We can often be found debating among ourselves on how best to handle them. ”
As if to underline how rapidly issues such as identity can change, the school’s name changed a few weeks ago. It was initially given an Irish name – Scoil Niamh – but they opted to change it partly because they felt it could be confused for a Gaelscoil.
The setting for Citywest and Saggart National School is another good example of how adaptable schools need to be. It is housed temporarily in the ghostly setting of what was intended during the economic boom to be a boutique golf village, with designer shops and high-end eateries. The plan was never realised.
For now, the high-ceilinged rooms and floor-to-ceiling windows make for perfect classrooms. The rapidly growing school is set to grow to than 400 students in a few years’ time. For all the changes that are happening in society, however, Conboy thinks that its approach is attractive to many because it hasn’t “thrown the baby out with the bathwater”.
"We have a uniform, people refer to teacher with a sense of formality, using 'Mr' or 'Ms'," Conboy says. "They see that we're progressive, but that we also have a root in tradition. I think that appeals to a lot of people." ELECTION BATTLEGROUND: MAJOR PLAYERS' POSITIONS In April 2011, former minister for education Ruairí Quinn set up the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism, aimed at ensuring our primary-school system reflects the diversity of the population. Its report recommended that about 50 schools in 47 catchment areas be divested. To date, just eight schools have gone through this process.
Ninety per cent of all 3,200 primary schools in the State remain under the patronage of the Catholic Church.
Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan says the divestment needs to be speeded up as more areas are identified where local communities want different patronage options. She has also indicated that new forms of patronage, including new rules for school amalgamations, need to be explored and developed that best serve and reflect local communities.
It is Labour policy that the number of multidenominational schools will double from 100 to 200 over the coming years if the party is returned to government.
Fine Gael party policy in the general election will not set targets for multidenominational schools, according to sources,but will emphasise the importance of parental choice.
Fianna Fáil’s policy focus is to reform school admissions by ensuring local children within catchment areas are prioritised. These areas would be bigger for minority-faith schools, so they can retain their religious ethos.
Lobby groups are working behind the scenes to help make equality of access to schools an election issue. Equate, a campaign group that includes Quinn on its advisory group, is seeking measures to ensure the school system is “fit for purpose” for the 21st century. Its director, Michael Barron, says it has met all the major political parties and is confident of broad support. “We’re not looking to end denominational education. We are looking for children to have equal access to their local school.”
Many Catholic bishops, meanwhile, have spoken in favour of divesting more of their schools. Bishops are most concerned about potential changes to the Equal Status Act, which permits schools to discriminate on the basis of religion. O’Sullivan has flagged that this should be amended.