Schools bound by ‘outdated rules’ around the teaching of religion

State sector schools have a duty to protect the human rights of all children, conference told

Schools are being bound by decades-old rules around the teaching of religion that no longer reflect the reality of a rapidly-changing society, according to the head of one of the biggest school management bodies.

Michael Moriarty, general secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), which manages almost 300 secondary schools, told the organisation's annual conference on Wednesday that its schools have a duty to protect the rights of all students.

However, he said Department of Education circulars regarding the tuition of religion were from a “different era” when students were drawn from very similar backgrounds.

“Today, we’re in a completely different setting with a variety of denominations and beliefs. We need to modernise the circulars which govern our schools. The old circulars talk about religious education and worship, with provision for opting out.


“You were either in or out. Now, the challenge in a multi-belief context is to ensure that all children are engaged in something constructive, in accordance with parental wishes, which might be curriculum-based.”

In his address to delegates, he said State sector schools – run by Education and Training Board schools (ETBs), formerly know as VECs – have a duty to promote equality of opportunity and to protect the human rights of children attending our schools

He said a “religion and diversity task group” has been established to look at the characteristic spirit of its post-primary schools.

In the meantime, he said the department was revising its circulars and the sector looked forward to the clarity that these circulars will provide in how State schools should address religious diversity.

Community school model

Mr Moriarty said he hoped the experience gained in developing community national school model – a new State-sponsored multi-denominational primary school under the patronage of ETBs – will help in dealing with issues at second-level.

There are now 12 community national schools across the country which provide for faith-formation for a variety of different religions.

This includes its “belief-nurturing” programme, which it says encourages children to engage with their families and belief communities to learn more about their own faith or secular beliefs.

“What is considered a private aspect of the child’s life in some school types is brought into the public space in a community national school. Never has this approach been more important in a world where religious polarisation and conflict are on the rise,” Mr Moriarty said.

“Children attending these schools learn from a very young age that other people hold different beliefs, and that this is okay.”

Mr Moriarty said that prior to coming fully under the patronage of their local ETBs a year ago, it was difficult to collectively describe the “characteristic spirit” of the new school model.

In the past few months, he said the ETBs have worked together to develop a very “clear, consistent and deeply meaningful characteristic spirit” in its community national schools.

Multi-belief iconography

This includes emphasising the importance of excellence in education, an equality-based approach, a focus on the local community and their multi-denominational ethos.

“Unlike non-denominational schools, community national schools recognise and celebrate the religious or belief identity of all its pupils equally,” he said.

“This is evident from the multi-belief iconography you see around the school buildings and the various celebrations they hold throughout the year, echoing the celebrations taking place in the homes of the children attending the schools.”

He added: “It is clear that there is a need for more community national schools around the country. The experiences of the communities of these schools... highlight the incredible opportunity that exists for ETBs to become more involved at primary level.

“I have every confidence that each ETB can become the proud patron of a community national school in the near future.”

Along with almost 300 secondary schools, ETBs manage 12 community national schools, more than 200 centres of education and 19 training centres primarily traineeship and apprenticeships.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent