Many State-run multidenominational secondary schools are legally obliged to employ Catholic chaplains, provide religious instruction and submit themselves to inspections by diocesan examiners, according to an unpublished report.
Tens of thousands of pupils attend 270 secondary schools run by State-owned Education and Training Boards (ETB).
These former vocational schools are categorised as multidenominational by the Department of Education.
However, legally binding agreements with the Catholic Church dating back to the 1970s oblige a quarter of these schools to maintain a Catholic ethos and provide students with two hours of religious instruction.
A draft internal report produced by Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) questions whether these schools can be truly described as "multidenominational".
In addition, it says many State-run secondary schools without these legal agreements also identify as having a Catholic or Christian ethos and are being inspected on a regular basis by diocesan examiners.
These schools, for example, still have graduation Masses, symbols from the Catholic faith only and facilitate visits from Catholic religious representatives.
The ETBI’s “core values and characteristic spirit review” report highlights the challenge facing the sector in becoming more representative of the wider community.
The report says that, overall, ETB schools are inclusive and are open to all pupils regardless of their background.
But it notes that the sector has yet to clearly articulate its core values and ethos and this has resulted in schools being left “to form their own schools-specific values and traditions”.
It says that in some cases there is a confusion over whether ETB schools “are de jure ‘multidenominational’ but de facto Catholic”.
An additional barrier to ETBs promoting these schools as multidenominational, it says, is that many are called after Catholic saints.
“This is further complicated by the fact that approximately 26 per cent of ETB schools are ‘designated schools’ with legally binding model agreements or deeds of trust which guarantee certain provisions for Catholic children [in the majority of cases] in relation to religious instruction and worship.”
It notes that most “designated schools” came about through the amalgamation of a number of vocational and church-run schools in an area.
The agreements drawn up over governance and ethos were negotiated at a time when the ETB sector did not have clearly defined core values or a coherent position on the place of religion in their schools.
It says this led to these agreements being “more influenced by the other trustee partners in relation to these matters”.
“As a result, there is a question as to whether these schools can be described as ‘multidenominational’ ” the report states.
Nessa White, the general secretary of the Education and Training Boards Ireland, said the report highlights the challenge facing the sector in terms of achieving consistency over the place of religions and beliefs in State schools.
“We will continue to lead the core values review process over the coming months and hopes to develop the framework by June 2020,” she said.
“Schools will then be required over time to redevelop their vision and mission statements and related practices to ensure that while they meet the broad needs of the school community that they are in line with the core values of the sector.”