Action needed on school divestment

 

Sir, – The impending change in the leadership of the Catholic Church provides an opportunity for church and State to address for once and for all the widening gap between the current primary school structure and the needs of the community.

A survey by NUI of over 1,000 trainee teachers found “when asked about their beliefs, one-third of respondents said they rarely or never practised their religion or attended religious services”. Another survey by RTÉ found that in the 25 to 65 age group – which would cover most teachers – almost one-third of people never or hardly ever attended religious services. Another 30 per cent attended religious services only a few time a year.

From this we can reasonably conclude that perhaps one-third of Catholic school teachers are essentially non-religious – approximately 12,000 teachers.

An unwelcome feature of Catholic schools is that “all teachers in Catholic primary schools are contractually required . . . to teach the Catholic religious education curriculum”. This curriculum includes specific faith-formation goals, despite the obvious conflict with freedom of thought, conscience and religion for thousands of non-religious teachers.

The Catholic Church has not been slow to demand freedom of conscience in relation abortion. But school teachers in its employment must teach children religious doctrines in which they do not believe as eternal truths – or face the sack.

The Catholic Church’s position on freedom of conscience is hypocritical in the extreme. It is a scandal that the State permits the denial of rights of conscience to teachers in public schools. Teaching should now be included in equality legislation.

Tens of thousands of parents are also denied their rights. A Department of Education report shows that one-quarter of parents whose children are in Catholic schools would move their children to a school with a non-religious patron, if possible. Educate Together was the overwhelming choice.

Currently church and State are denying over 140,000 children their constitutional right to a non-religious education. The present, piecemeal divestment programme has failed. It is time now for church and State to get together to agree a major, national divestment programme which will match up the needs of parents, teachers and patrons.

This does not mean more schools will have to be built – children in schools to be divested are already in public school places, built by the State.

Population growth drives the need for new schools – not religion.

Divestment could be good for the church. As large numbers of non-religious teachers and parents go elsewhere, Catholic schools will become more “Catholic” and attendances at religious services might improve.

And given the chronic (and worsening) shortage of priests, it may well be to the church’s advantage to let go those who want to go.

Either way, it is long past time for church and State stopped their foot-dragging on primary education and provided the education the people want. – Yours, etc,

ANTHONY O’LEARY,

Portmarnock,

Co Dublin.