How religion made its way into primary school system


The original primary school system was envisioned as being interdenominational, writes GARRET FITZGERALD

I INTEND to write next week about some of the issues recently raised in connection with religion and education. But I do not think these matters can be usefully debated without a clear understanding of the complex historical background to the present arrangements in relation to primary education.

This background includes radical changes made 40 years ago, of which most people seem unaware, which substituted a fully denominational structure for one that in the first 40 years of our State had remained de jure interdenominational – but in which, of course, the churches had from the 1830s been playing a significant role.

In 1782, penal legislation making education other than in schools teaching the doctrines of the established Church of Ireland was repealed and thousands of hedge schools gradually moved indoors.

Most commonly they ended up in what a comprehensive survey of schools by the British parliament in 1824 described as “miserable hovels”, but especially in the towns there were also by then a number of well-housed schools run by and for Catholics, some of which catered for 400 or 500 pupils. And there were, in addition, a number of Presbyterian schools, especially in Northern Ireland. By that date, rapid expansion of this new branch of education had led to the emergence of some 10,000 schools with Catholic masters teaching over 400,000 pupils, whose parents on average paid seven to eight shillings a year per child. (Average annual income per head of population may then have been about £10.)

Research I have been undertaking into education in that period shows that nationally one-tenth of Protestant children (but up to two-thirds in several counties) were in schools with Catholic headmasters, while schools with Protestant headmasters were teaching 145,000 pupils, one-third of whom were Catholic.

Many of the Church of Ireland schools were then financially supported by a number of well-endowed Protestant institutions in Ireland and Britain. In the first couple of decades of the 19th century this had led to a campaign, in which Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic hierarchy played prominent roles, seeking state support for schools for Catholics.

In 1814, a Society for the Promotion of Education of the Poor in Ireland, (popularly known as the Kildare Place Society), which had proclaimed its objective as being to set up schools “divested of all sectarian distinctions of Christianity” was given a state grant for this purpose. However, the society insisted that the Bible be read to students, and Bible readings unaccompanied by Catholic notes and comments were then, and for long afterwards, anathema to the Catholic Church.

Eventually in 1824, O’Connell succeeded in getting parliament to establish a commission of inquiry which recommended that the activities of the society be limited, and that a new government body be established to organise interdenominational education.

And so, in October 1831, shortly after Catholic Emancipation, chief secretary Edward Stanley, by way of a letter to the Duke of Leinster inviting him to chair a new board of commissioners of national education, founded our national school system. For the next 170 years two variants of that letter (the original of which had been lost) remained the sole basis for the existence of our national schools.

Joint applications for the establishment of interdenominational schools were to be made to this board by the different religious groups in each area. But, while the Catholic hierarchy had accepted this new interdenominational system, it was bitterly opposed, (and within eight years had been comprehensively sabotaged) by the Protestant religious authorities, who refused to join in making joint applications. In 1839 the Presbyterians secured changes in the rules which gave a strong denominational complexion to their schools, and in the same year the Church of Ireland created its own separate organisation to run its schools: the Church Education Society.

The board, clearly anxious not to disappoint the Catholic community, felt it had no choice but to accept applications coming from one denomination only, and so a de facto Catholic national school system came into existence, with the bishops as school patrons in each diocese, ensuring that the teachers in their schools were Catholics.

I emphasise the words “de facto denominational”. For the principle that all schools remained open to children of all denominations survived, as did the principle that no children could be required to attend denominational religious instruction. The latter principle was, indeed, incorporated in both the 1922 constitution (Article 8) and that of 1937 (Article 44.4).

However, in August 1932 two provisions relating to primary education were dropped, in recognition of the fact that they had long ceased to apply. These had been that as far as possible children of all persuasions would be educated in the same schools, and that the clergy and laity of different religious denominations should co-operate in conducting national schools”. Nevertheless, in the Irish Free State religious instruction remained separate from the rest of the curriculum, being provided normally between 12 to 12.30 so as to facilitate the withdrawal of non-Catholic children – thus safeguarding the constitutional rights of minority participants in the system.

The really fundamental switch to an avowedly denominational school structure came much later, in January 1965, through a little-noticed change by the Department of Education in the national school rules, which was authorised by the then minister Paddy Hillery.

On the basis of a reference in Article 44.4 to “schools under the management of different religious denominations” these new rules declared that the State “gives explicit recognition to the denominational character of primary schools”.

Drawing on this assertion, in 1971 the Department of Education, under Padraic Faulkner, issued new rules for primary education based, “on the following theses . . . that the separation of religious and secular instruction into differentiated subject compartments, [which had been a key element of the system since its inception] serves only to throw the whole educational function out of focus”.Thenceforth, religion was to permeate the whole curriculum.