Religion and schools: time for more radical reform

Our State-funded education system must be equally available to all our children


Parents have a right to opt their children out of religious instruction classes in schools. The reality in the classroom can be very different. Children are regularly left to sit at the back of the class during religious instruction. They are often prohibited from studying other subjects. Some schools stipulate that wearing headphones or doing schoolwork is banned.

Department of Education officials are finalising a circular aimed at modernising decades-old rules over the teaching of religion in community, comprehensive and Education and Training Board schools. Minister for Education Richard Bruton has confirmed it will require schools to have a “proper timetable of beneficial work” for children who opt out of religion.

Modernising these rules will, belatedly, help ensure we begin to respect the rights of minority pupils in these schools. However, it is just one small step. Much more radical reform is needed to ensure our schools reflect the reality of the modern classroom.

As it stands, we are saddled with a 19th-century-schools system that is out of step with the needs of 21st-century society. Some 95 per cent of primary schools and almost half of secondary schools remain in the hands of religious denominations, while up to 20 per cent of children are of no religion.

Progress on tackling this mismatch has been achingly slow. More than five years have passed since plans to pave the way for divestment of schools from religious ownership were announced in a blaze of publicity. Only 12 or so have completed the divestment process to date. There has been a range of obstacles, such as local resistance to change and opposition from local clergy. More radical measures linking State funding to reform may help concentrate minds.

The planned removal of the “Baptism barrier” in legislation due later this year is an encouraging step forward by Bruton. If implemented, it will mean oversubscribed Catholic schools will not be entitled to prioritise children of their own religion ahead of others who live closer to the school. The Government must hold firm and steer this legislation on to the statute books.

While religious schools have a right to express their characteristic spirit, faith-formation classes should not discriminate or exclude children. While many schools are flexible and inclusive, there are plenty of examples where this is not the case. In an ideal world, religious instruction classes in State-funded schools should be held outside of normal school hours.

As it stands, our system is not fit for purpose to meet the needs of a diverse population. Every child should have the same opportunities, regardless of their family background, religion or non- religion. Too often, this is not the case.