Time to Separate Teaching from Preaching

A UN examination of Ireland’s human rights record highlights room for improvement in the delivery of education for all.

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In 1966 a treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in which all signatories agreed to uphold the civil and political rights of their citizens.  Ireland ratified this International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1989, and as such is required to send representatives to the UN Human Rights Committee on a regular basis, usually every four years, to report the state’s progress. NGOs who represent people affected by the relevant issues are also invited to make presentations at these meetings and to meet committee members ahead of questioning in order to ensure that their concerns are dealt with.

At the meeting in 2008 the committee raised concerns that Ireland was not doing enough to protect the rights of secular parents in the provision of education.  Religious patronage, overwhelmingly Roman catholic, dominates the primary school system.   96 percent of primary schools in the Irish republic are under denominational patronage, with 3,000 of those 3,200 schools managed by the Catholic Church.  The line between religious instruction and the rest of the curriculum is blurred by religious education authorities who insist that they are inseparable. This is not only allowed but enforced in the Rules for National Schools by Rule 68 that explicitly states:

“Of all the parts of a school curriculum, Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honor and service, includes the proper use of all of man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use.  Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.”

This may sound like a rule written for privately held church controlled schools, but it actually applies to state schools funded by the taxpayer.

The dominance of the system by church interests means that children of non-catholic and non-religious parents often find themselves in catholic-controlled schools for lack of any local alternatives.  They are vulnerable to being given religious instruction against their parents’ wishes, and there have been cases of secular parents removing their children from certain schools upon hearing their children come home reciting prayers and claiming that they had been frightened by stories about hellfire and damnation.

The issue has been raised before on RTE’s PrimeTime show, with parents telling of how hard it was for them to find a school for their children that was not intent on indoctrinating them into the catholic faith.  The dismissive attitude of some audience members was that Ireland is a catholic country and that anyone who objects to it should leave. One would hope that half-baked sectarian views are absent in the higher levels of the country’s political structure.

Ruairí Quinn, the reform-minded former Minister for Education and Skills, set about a program of “divestment” following recommendations made in the 2012 report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.  Subject to local agreement on a case-by-case basis, this process would take schools out of religious patronage and put them under the aegis of Educate Together, an NGO that oversees multi-denominational, coeducational schools, as well as open new secular schools under the body.  Progress on this is now underway, and an education system that better reflects the increasingly diverse and less religious make-up of the country should begin to take shape, but this will be a long process.

However in the meantime, there are still going to be non-religious parents who have no option but to send their children to catholic schools.  If the notorious Rule 68 were to be deleted, as recommended in the 2012 report, it should protect the rights of parents as well as keep the UN watchdogs happy, but it is by no means certain that this will happen.

Last week the Irish delegation to the UNHRC’s latest meeting in Geneva, led by Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Justice, was asked if the State believed it was required to ensure a neutral teaching environment outside of the religious instruction classes in denominational schools.  The response was that under the Irish Constitution and the 1998 Education Act, parents have a right to opt their children out of religious instruction classes.  However that question and its answer assumes that religious instruction only takes place in specific lessons, but Rule 68 allows it to permeate throughout the school day.  Reports abound of schools that make a token gesture of allowing certain children to opt out of trips to the local church for mass, but do not bother providing any supervision for them, requiring parents to take time off work.  There are also reports of these children being forced to be present for prayers throughout the school day.

The existence of Rule 68 is contrary to the ethos of pluralism, and removing it is an administrative matter that should not require legislation. One has to ask why it still remains on the books and why the Irish delegation was so reticent to say whether or not it will be deleted. Perhaps the UN could shame the state into more urgent action.