Religious control of schools is neither tolerant nor inclusive

Opinion: Many of my peers have a blind spot and display much hypocrisy when it comes to the Catholic Church

“I am still baffled at the inertia shown with regard to removing the education of so many of our children from the control of the Catholic church.” Photograph: Scott Smith/Getty Images

This month will be marked by thousands of new communicants entering the Catholic faith in Ireland. I admire Hilary Fannin's ability to take a light-hearted and humorous approach to this sacrament and its associated commercialism in her recent column ( Irish Times , May 17th), but I cannot see any funny side to this sacrament given the impact its promotion has on those pupils in Catholic schools who are not a part of it.

After almost four years of involvement in cake sales and fundraising, bingo games, summer fetes and school plays, my daughter’s sense of belonging and inclusion in her local national school has come to an abrupt end.

For the past few weeks, my daughter has, for vast swathes of time, been reading, drawing and colouring on her own to alleviate her boredom and provide distraction during what is official class time. She is not making her Communion, unlike almost all her fellow pupils. Notwithstanding the kindness and professionalism of her teacher, my daughter’s exclusion is palpable and has caused considerable distress.

“I am still baffled at the inertia shown with regard to removing the education of so many of our children from the control of the Catholic church.” Photograph: Scott Smith/Getty Images

I know some readers will ask why I chose to send her to a Catholic school in the first place. To that question the answers are simple.


First, it is the local school, the school for my community and I wish my family to be a part of that community.

Second, I am a taxpaying citizen of this State and my taxes fund this school.

Third, the non-Catholic school options in the area in which I live are minimal, as is the case nationwide: the vast majority (96 per cent) of primary schools in Ireland are owned and under the patronage of religious denominations and approximately 90 per cent of these schools are owned and under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

How will we ever achieve tolerance and diversity in education and by extension society if we continually exclude non-Catholic children from some of the activities of these classrooms? The system of education that exists in Ireland today is essentially one of fundamentalist State-sponsored Catholic control.

'One religion here'
Ireland of the thousand welcomes is a different place inside the four walls of a national school classroom; there it is a case of "one religion here", "others, or none, over there".

If the rights of the child, which are said to be taken seriously by State and society, are of genuine concern, then why can we not discuss the rights of the child in the classroom? Why must non-Catholic children continue to endure a different education to their Catholic peers? Where is the equality in that?

Can religious tuition not be undertaken outside of core school hours so that a level playing pitch is provided in the classroom? While there are such pilot schemes under way around the country as a result of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector established in 2011, anyone who has observed the speed at which the church relinquishes control in this country understands that such schemes may not be rolled out for decades, during which more children will suffer discrimination in a room that should prize them as equals.

I am still baffled at the inertia shown with regard to removing the education of so many of our children from the control of the Catholic Church.

I am aware that in the 2011 census 84.2 per cent of respondents ticked the “Catholic” box. But how many of these are “Catholics” that have not been inside a church since their wedding day or their child’s christening? How many of these are the same “Catholics” who do not know when to genuflect, kneel or stand during the Communion Mass?

Are these also the “Catholics” who complain that they are forced to attend six Masses before their child can make his or her Communion? Are these the same “Catholics” who have told me that they will get their child into better secondary schools if they are seen to have their children take Catholic sacraments? My experience of many fellow parents suggests little evidence of genuine faith or Catholic practice on their part.

State-sponsored religious control
I am not intolerant of any religion. What I do object to is the exclusion of my children inside their classrooms. This State-sponsored religious control is not tolerant or inclusive. To many of my peers, my generation of 40-somethings who espouse liberal views on women's equality, the environment, social issues and rights, and who are forthright and outspoken and for the most part proud of their tolerance on these questions, I say this: you have a blind spot when it comes to the Catholic Church and display much hypocrisy.

Whether it is to keep grandparents happy, or smooth your child’s path through the education system or just to make life easy, your selfishness, blind box-ticking and facilitating your children’s induction into a church that you are not a real, practising part of, all have the same end result: the continuance of church control of schools and a failure to create diverse and inclusive classrooms.

Sheila Maher is a writer and VEC teacher based in Dublin