Religion and schools: 'It's time to stop playing the pretend game'

Opinion: ‘It was easy being an atheist principal of a Catholic school. All one had to do was to pretend not to be’

It was the look in my oncologist’s eye that made me make the on-the-spot decision to retire.

He may as well have pointed to the bold print on the wall: cancer + stress = worse cancer.

After 37 years as a teacher with the last 20 as principal of a busy primary school this was a no-brainer. Time to go.

The saccharine pipped the lemon in that bittersweet moment. I loved my job. I would miss the daily interaction with the children and friendly staff banter. Teaching had been my life.

I loved the daily ritual of greeting the children one by one in the morning as they walked through the school doors. It was time to lock those doors and leave the building. However, at 58 years of age I could walk away from my school and publicly admit something for the first time: I was no longer a Catholic.

It was relatively easy to be an atheist principal of a Catholic school. All one had to do was to pretend not to be.

The level of pretentiousness in primary schools is stark. As a principal who was lapsing from a la carte to non-practising to atheism, I wore my lack of belief in God with poker-face anonymity.

My contract demanded that I uphold the Catholic ethos of the school. With no authority to show a private face, I used my public one to ensure that sacraments were made and religion was taught in each class every day.

Yearly diocesan inspections ensured the catechetical boxes were ticked as the church joined in on the pretence. It was a pair of kings pretending to be a royal flush.

With fewer than 20 per cent of us practising religion regularly, our children sit through two and a half hours of religious study per week taught by teachers who are also very much part of the ever-dwindling participative church.

A recent survey conducted by NUI Galway into religiosity and practice conservatively estimated that 30 per cent of new entrants either don’t believe or practice a religion, yet most will be applying for positions in the 96 per cent single denominational schools.

Here, they will join colleagues who are not exempt from the societal change in religious attitude and practice. Hence the pretence.


For me, the whole concept of denominational ethos within primary schools is problematic. Ethos is the essence of the school, that which underpins its uniqueness.

In our school, I believed that our ethos was the inclusivity which welcomed all children irrespective of creed, background or ability.

School ethos evolves due to the collective effort of children, families and staff to make sure that what is important rises to the top. For one church to claim ownership of this ethos simply made no sense.

The Forum for Patronage and Pluralism recommended that Catholic schools begin the process of divestment to community schools since its first report in 2012.

To date, the divesting rate is negligible. I wrote about this last year, and a few days later I received an email from the diocese of Cloyne informing me that I was no longer on the panel of independent assessors for interview selection boards.

When I enquired as to why, I was informed that my “public stance on church/school matters is not compatible with you sitting on selection boards for the appointment of teachers in schools under Catholic patronage”.

Rather than engage with any points raised in my writing, the bishop exercised his right to shoot the naysayer.

The present dispute in the Church of Ireland school in St Patrick's National School in Greystones smacks of similarity. Here the board of management has refused to alter its enrolment policy where children who regularly attend church services are prioritised despite the resignation of the school's principal and opposition from parents.

Such a move is out of touch with the secularisation of society not only in Wicklow but nationwide.

Both scenarios show a blatant disregard for reality. The majority of children come from homes where religion is not practised. It is time for single faith schools to recognise this distinction and set about meeting the needs of all children.

Denominational education defies equality in terms of numbers. Why should any child have to listen to half an hour of religion a day owned by a church he or she rarely knows?

All children need to learn about morality and ethics in our schools. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment piloted the Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics in 2016. It has since been put on hold but will form part of the next curriculum due to be introduced over the next three to four years.

It can only be successfully accessed by all children when denominational education takes place outside of schools hours. And therein lies the key to the next debate.

It is time we all stopped playing the pretend game.

Peter Gunning is a retired school principal of Scartleigh National School, Saleen, Midleton, Co Cork