We need secular primary schools to reflect changes in religious practice

‘The number of weddings performed by Humanist celebrants is now twice those in the Church of Ireland. Yet the Church of Ireland has a national school in almost every town’

‘When our national school system was set up in 1831 it was to be a secular system where all children would be educated together. What a wonderful aspiration! But look how it ended up. In years to come people will look back and exclaim with horror: “You mean in the old days in Ireland Protestants and Catholics were educated separately?”.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘When our national school system was set up in 1831 it was to be a secular system where all children would be educated together. What a wonderful aspiration! But look how it ended up. In years to come people will look back and exclaim with horror: “You mean in the old days in Ireland Protestants and Catholics were educated separately?”.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Four years after then Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, set up the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, the Catholic Church has just published its document Catholic Primary Schools in a Changing Ireland. But, for non-religious parents wishing to send their child to the local, State-funded national school, nothing really changes.

In January, when the Humanist Association of Ireland met the Taoiseach and the current Minister for Education & Skills Jan O’Sullivan, the question was asked: “How can it be all right to pressurise parents into doing something totally against their conscience, ie, having their child baptised, simply in order to get them enrolled in the local state-funded school?” The Minister’s response fell well short of what we wanted. We were told that a variety of school options were being offered to meet the needs of a diverse demographic.

Ireland has changed. There was a time when it could be assumed that most people were religious or at least put up some pretence at being religious. But this is no longer the case. Rather than quoting census figures or church attendance trends let’s look at how couples are choosing to get married. Last year one third of couples getting married had non-religious ceremonies. I think it’s reasonable to ask: what sort of schools do these parents want for their children?

Many such couples would opt for Educate Together schools but there just aren’t enough of them. And it’s not an option to simply allow things to change slowly – there are parents trying to get places for their children now and being told “no, not unless you produce a baptismal certificate”.

It’s interesting to note that the number of weddings performed by Humanist celebrants is now twice those in the Church of Ireland. And yet the Church of Ireland has a national school in almost every town in the country.

Change is always a challenge but it is up to our Government to manage it. The new Children and Family Relationships Bill is a good example of recognising a new reality in Ireland and putting legislation together to deal with it. Something similar needs to be done in the area of primary education as the new reality is simply not being recognised.

When our national school system was set up in 1831 it was to be a secular system where all children would be educated together. What a wonderful aspiration! But look how it ended up. In years to come people will look back and exclaim with horror: “You mean in the old days in Ireland Protestants and Catholics were educated separately?”

The Humanist Association of Ireland is launching a campaign to highlight what we see as a great injustice in Irish society. From March 23rd billboards will feature posters stating: “Most State-funded schools discriminate against children who are not baptised” and seeking a texted response.

The widespread practice in Ireland of “pragmatic baptisms” shows our country in a very poor light. We all know of parents being coerced into bringing their child to be baptised and then not appearing in the church again until first Holy Communion. And is it not grossly offensive for sincere Christians to see young children being baptised simply in order to get a piece of paper to be used as a bargaining chip? In years to come these stories will be told along with the Famine tales of soup-kitchens providing sustenance only for those willing to profess a certain faith – whatever about the truth of these tales the requirement for baptismal certificates is very real. Think about it.

What are the churches afraid of? Is their belief system so fragile that they need to have a special education model to ensure its survival? And how has it fared? Have our largely religious run schools produced citizens who have displayed great integrity and, in a real sense, “done their country some service”? Looking back over the quite recent past I think this is a fair question to ask.

The idea that one must hold a religious faith in order to lead a moral, ethical life was one of the great myths invented to promote religious belief and practice. There is lots of evidence to show that secular societies fare better on all sorts of indicators of well-being than most religious states. The most peaceful states, according to the Global Peace Index in its 2014 rankings, are almost all among the most secular.

As we approach 2016 much is being asked of how we’re doing as a Republic. How fair and equal are we as a society? We’ve come a long way and equality has been won for most sections of society. But there’s one group for whom equality is still being sought: the significant and growing number of non-religious.

Brian Whiteside, Director, Humanist Association of Ireland

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