Multi-belief religious teaching may be way forward

OPINION: EOIN DALY’S article “State must resolve thorny issue of religious education” (Irish Times, April 2nd) provides a prescriptive…

OPINION:EOIN DALY'S article "State must resolve thorny issue of religious education" (Irish Times, April 2nd) provides a prescriptive and legalistic view of the issues around the need to cater for increasing religious diversity in Irish schools. However, this is not a cut-and- dried issue on which legally laden pronouncements should be made.

Primary education needs to change to cherish all children equally and to enhance national and community cohesion. But the requirement to remove religious instruction from the school day is not neutral. It requires religious parents to have their human rights moderated – in a way that is not necessary to vindicate the rights of others.

The community national school (CNS) model is a State primary schooling system put in place to provide a multi-belief programme for children of all faiths and none during the school day, in accordance with parents’ wishes.

As State schools, CNS schools cannot, and would not, privilege one religion over another, despite the recent distortion in the media after an incorrect interpretation of historical documents.

The census indicates up to 6 per cent of Irish people describe themselves as non-religious. The argument has been made that religious instruction should be moved to the private sphere, becoming a kind of extracurricular activity attached to the school day.

But this would not create a “neutral”, religion-free zone in schools as the dominant ethos would then be non-religious, moving to the other extreme from religious-run schools.

The recent census data also indicates that the vast majority of people, over 92 per cent, describe themselves as having some form of religious affiliation, with many more forms of belief than has historically been the case in Ireland. Surely, a schooling that engages children of religious and non-religious backgrounds in a multi-belief programme is meeting the wishes of parents rather than a totally non-religious approach.

Ireland has changed and is changing. It is an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic State. Education must prepare children to live in this society as well as preparing them to work in it. The VEC sector, as a democratically constituted and community- based, publicly funded State education system, has always sought to prepare students for effective citizenship. Nurturing children in the fullest sense, including acknowledging their belief background, and providing a multi-belief religion programme is a part of this preparation.

Eoin Daly speaks of “segregating young children on sectarian grounds”, but this is a mischievous and pejorative use of language. All parents of children in primary schools are aware that children are separated for many reasons during the school’s day. Children often work in changing groups; they move classes for special education, resource support, English support, music, sport, art, literacy etc. Why is this not “segregation”?

In CNS model schools, children spend three to four weeks each year in belief-specific groups. These groups are broad-based (Catholic, Christian, Muslim and non-theist), so that there is no need to make decisions about versions of Islam, humanism or Christianity. All the children are taught the same themes.

The report of the forum on patronage and pluralism will shortly be published. One of the challenges for the Minister will be devolving the management of religious-run schools.

It is important a number of models are available because all parents will not want their children to move from a religious model to a non-religious one. In that instance, a multi-belief religion programme may be more welcome.

The multi-belief religion programme in CNS model schools is called “Goodness Me Goodness You” and it presents broad-based themes to children on which all belief systems are based – community, family, seasons, etc. It is up to parents and the faith community to deepen understanding on these themes as they consider appropriate.

All belief communities are now aware that schools cannot take on all the responsibility for religious instruction. This must be a three-way approach from family, faith community and school.

There is an understanding, even in many Catholic schools, that large amounts of time cannot be given to preparing children for the sacraments. The suggestion at the interim report of the forum that a form of religious beliefs programme be part of all school religion programmes, denominational and otherwise will further move religious formation towards the home and the community.

However, second-level schools in the VEC sector have already been successful – as State schools – in respecting children of all beliefs and that is why the State can welcome the opportunity to do so at primary level in the same inclusive manner.

In all this debate, we must be careful as educators of imposing adult divisions and fears onto our children. Whatever is taught must be appropriate for four- year-olds as well as 12-year-olds.

We are very conscious of this fact in maths or science but we sometimes project adult misconceptions about religion into four-year-old minds. They, fortunately, can do much better!

Dr Marie Griffin is chief executive of the school patron body County Dublin VEC