State schools and religion: ‘We’re changing in the same way as society is’

Lucan Community College no longer records pupils’ religion and has no faith-based events

Lucan Community College students Josh Murphy,  Sam Doyle, Dana Sulaiman, Sheik Bah and Monica Matei.

Lucan Community College students Josh Murphy, Sam Doyle, Dana Sulaiman, Sheik Bah and Monica Matei.

 

In many ways, Lucan Community College’s journey has mirrored the country’s social and religious transformation over recent decades.

In the late 1980s it employed a Catholic priest as a chaplain who also taught Catholic students.

Accommodating religious differences at the time was straightforward: Catholic students went to one religion class; Protestants went to another.

Nowadays, with a much more diverse student population, there is no more faith formation or religious worship . The chaplain is long gone and there are no religious artefacts on the walls.

In fact, the school no longer records the faith of any student on the basis that it is no longer relevant.

Instead, all students have access to same religious education course in which students learn about faiths around the world.

There are also occasional visits to different places of worship, such as mosques, while school principal Diane Birnie marks different religious occasions with an announcement across the school PA system.

Diane Birnie, principal of Lucan Community College, Esker Drive, Lucan, Co Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Diane Birnie, principal of Lucan Community College, Esker Drive, Lucan, Co Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

“I do feel we have changed and adapted in the same way as society has,” says Birnie.

“We have a traditional end-of-year celebration school event at a local church, but that’s only because we don’t have a hall big enough to fit everyone. It includes reflections from all traditions. There might be a Christian element, or a reflection from Buddhism or Judaism.”

Patronage

Lucan Community College is a State secondary school under the patronage of the local Education and Training Board (ETB) .

In all there are 270 ETB schools which are categorised as multidenominational by the Department of Education.

While Lucan is a model for this inclusive approach, an internal review by the Education and Training Boards Ireland questions whether many schools in the sector are genuinely multidenominational.

The draft review states that legally-binding agreements with the Catholic Church dating back to the 1970s oblige a quarter of these schools to employ chaplains, provide students with two hours of religious instruction and submit themselves to inspections by diocesan examiners .

In addition, it says many State secondary schools without these legal agreements still identify as having a Catholic or Christian ethos and are being inspected on a regular basis by diocesan examiners.

These schools still have graduation Masses, symbols from the Catholic faith only and visits from Catholic religious representatives.

Nessa White, the general secretary of the Education and Training Boards Ireland, says the report highlights the challenge facing the sector in terms of achieving clarity and consistency over the place of religions and beliefs in ETB schools.

“We will continue to lead the core values review process over the coming months and hope to develop the framework by June 2020,” she says.

“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.”

Inclusive

Back at Lucan Community College, students are in little doubt that an inclusive school environment where all faiths are embraced equally is the best environment.

“On the school crest it says ‘aontas’, which means unity,” says Sam Doyle (17). That’s the ethos here. There are people from different backgrounds, social classes and religions and countries. I think the school is a pretty good environment. It doesn’t discriminate at all. People get along well from different backgrounds.”

Sheik Bah (17), who was born Muslim but considers himself more spiritual, says learning and mixing with others from different background is vital.

“Especially nowadays with everything that’s going on it’s important that everyone has a better understanding of each other,” he says.

Dana Sulaiman (13) says it is easy for someone from a minority religion to feel left out in a school where just one religion is prioritised. She felt a bit like that at primary school, but not at secondary.

“I think we’re more open-minded about people here as a result . . . If we were somewhere else, you might only know how about one religion and how they act.”

Josh Murphy (14), agrees. He recalls the sense of exclusion at primary school when non-Catholics were left to do homework during religious celebrations.

“They didn’t join us. Instead, they’d have to read a book or do homework.”

Monica Matei (17) feels the religion of her fellow students isn’t a big deal in any case.

“You learn a lot about respecting other religions . . . but for us, I don’t think people’s religion is a real issue.”