Ireland has a 19th-century-schools system which is radically out of step with the needs of a 21st-century society. Some 95 per cent of State-funded primary schools are in the hands of religious denominations. Yet, we are an increasingly diverse society where religious practice and identity is on the wane.
It is six years since the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, established by former minister for education Ruairí Quinn, recommended steps to ensure that the education system could provide a greater range of schools to cater for children of all religions and none. A key proposal was to divest the ownership of religious schools in 28 areas to multidenominational patrons.
To date, progress has been achingly slow: only 10 completed this divestment process in the face of a range of obstacles, such as local resistance to change and opposition from local clergy. This week, Minister for Education Richard Bruton started a new process to accelerate the transfer of patronage away from religious schools. He maintains that "live transfers" of schools – rather than the cumbersome process of closures and amalgamations – will result in much faster progress. A key attraction, he says, is that religious organisation can lease their land to new patron bodies.
Quebec introduced laws which insisted that faith-based religious education take place outside the school day for publicly funded schools
It remains to be seen whether the Catholic hierarchy is ready for this step. There is every chance this process will get bogged down by many of the same obstacles all over again. Even if ambitious targets are met, the vast majority of schools will remain under denominational control. It is time to consider more radical steps. The ownership and control of school property is a complex issue, both constitutionally and in terms of property law and rights. There is merit, then, in re-establishing the Citizens Assembly to examine whether constitutional change is required.
We can also learn from how other jurisdictions have grappled with these issues. For example, Quebec introduced laws which insisted that faith-based religious education take place outside the school day for publicly-funded schools.
Education is a cornerstone of our society and our schools must operate in the best interests of all children
The proposed removal of the so-called Baptism barrier in school admissions is a step in the right direction, as are moves to make faith-infuenced religious education optional in schools run by Education and Training Boards. These, however, amount to tinkering. The ethos of denominational schools still permeates the school day. This is leading to the segregation of children, a heavy emphasis on faith formation and the denial of access to objective sex education.
Education is a cornerstone of our society and our schools must operate in the best interests of all children. No child should feel isolated because of their religion or non-religion. If our system is to be fit for the 21st century, more radical change is needed to reflect the diversity of our families, communities and society.