Breda O’Brien: Bruton ignores practical problems of letting students opt out of religion class
Anecdotally, the numbers opting out are tiny, but no one knows because no research has been done
Focusing on religion diverts attention from the lack of resources that is crippling Irish education. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire
The art of deflecting attention is an essential weapon in the armoury of every politician. Last Tuesday, the Oireachtas Committee on Education heard from teacher unions and educational representative bodies about the impossibility of finding qualified substitute teachers.
This crisis is crippling primary schools and denying children the right to a full education.
At second level, for many reasons, not least the discriminatory practice of unequal pay for newer teachers, there is a similar crisis.
Principals are tearing their hair out trying to find substitutes in subjects such as Irish, German, French, and home economics.
So, last Monday, Minister for Education Richard Bruton issued a circular on religious instruction in community and ETB (formerly VEC) second-level schools. Guess which event sucked up the air-time and headlines?
The Minister was airy about the ease of implementation. It did not seem to occur to him that all schools would have to timetable every religious education class in first year at the same time, and do the same right up to sixth year.
Banding religious education from first year to sixth year is likely to have the highly predictable consequence
Why? Because you cannot offer two (or more) options simultaneously unless all the students in that year are timetabled at the same time, a process called banding.
It is the bane of principals’ lives. They try to band as little as possible because it chokes a timetable and makes it very difficult to offer a wide range of subjects.
Banding religious education from first year to sixth year is likely to have the highly predictable consequence (for everyone but the Minister, apparently) of reducing subject choice in other areas, for example, science subjects.
The idea that the alternative subject can be more of English, maths or science can be dismissed immediately. Not only would such subjects be difficult to timetable at the same time as religious education, but providing only some pupils with additional classes would be grossly unfair.
This directive will be impossible to carry out without additional resources. It demands the provision of an entirely new subject, or indeed, multiple subjects, should minority religions seek education in their own faith.
The Constitution specifies that every child must receive “a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”. Section 9 of the Education Act of 1998 states that schools must “promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students”.
Schools do not provide an alternative subject to religious education at the moment because while there is no problem about opting out, providing a different subject, teacher and classroom, all for one or two pupils a year, is impossible.
No one knows what the demand for this new subject will be. Anecdotally, the numbers opting out are tiny, but no one, including the Minister, knows because no research has been done.
All we know is that there are tiny, but very influential lobby groups pushing this agenda. No doubt, after the Minister’s declaration, demand will rise.
Anyone teaching the alternative subject will have to be qualified, or else the Teaching Council will not register them. (Part of the substitution crisis involves being forced to employ unqualified people.)
The Minister calls the process of providing a new subject is “re-configuring resources”. The general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, John Mac Gabhann, calls it “expecting schools to shovel sand with a fork”.
Nor does the Minister seem to have any idea about modern religious education.
He calls it religious instruction. It has been called religious education for decades in every school I know of, and for good reason.
Most community schools follow the Junior Certificate State syllabus for religious education, which is intended for students of all faiths and none.
I teach this subject myself. I have had pupils who identified as atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics, devout Protestants, committed Catholics and observant Muslims sit this exam and all do equally well.
It is a broad-based syllabus, which includes modules on Christianity, world religions, morality, the search for meaning and values (including humanism and the relationship between religion and science) and how different religions celebrate times of significance.
Does the Minister really think that opting out of religious education of this kind is a good idea?
Perhaps he would prefer to have pupils ignorant of how the divisions arose between Sunni and Shia Muslims, for example? Or have no idea about the Judaeo-Christian underpinning of western culture?
Focusing on religion diverts attention from the lack of resources that is crippling Irish education. At primary level, we are below the EU and OECD average and below Donald Trump’s America when it comes to funding.
Not to mention the lack of planning that lead to the substitution crisis. Over a five-year period in primary schools, no substitute teachers could be found for the one-third of the days that they were needed.
And at second level, despite problems with recruitment and retention, lack of substitutes and implementing massive changes in the Junior Cycle, schools are meant to magic up a whole new subject from first to sixth year using only the resources they already have?
How convenient for a minister to have a dog-whistle called religion that brings an eager media pack panting whenever a real crisis needs tackling.