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Religion in schools: 'My son was upset - a friend told him he wasn't going to heaven'

Noteworthy gathers the experiences of parents and educators in Ireland’s majority Catholic primary education system.

THE LACK OF choice in Ireland’s public primary education system is having a profound impact on many families, religious or not, according to parents and educators.

This morning, The Journal’s community-sourced investigative platform Noteworthy published an extensive probe into the slow progress by the State to fulfil its commitment to divesting primary schools from a majority Catholic patronage.

  • You can read that report here>

Alongside that work, over the past four months, Noteworthy has received the views of over 1,000 non-religious, Catholic and minority faith parents and teachers on religion in primary education.

We wanted to get a sense of the experience for all families, religious or otherwise, of navigating through a system where at least 94% of Ireland’s publicly-funded schools are controlled by Christian denominations.

While many were reluctant to be publicly identified – and it must be noted that respondents to our survey were self-selecting – the responses indicate some issues common to families across the country.

One respondent, Colm O’Connor, is a parent, teacher and principal of an Educate Together secondary school in Cork. When his children were young, he and his wife enrolled them in the only local primary school, which was Catholic.

They wanted their children to go to school with their friends and neighbours in the village but, as a family who wanted to not participate in any religious segments, the children went to the back of class during religious instruction every day.

“They found this to be confusing and embarrassing,” he said. “From the start, we were told that no accommodation for minority/non-religious children would be made, but that we could withdraw them [from the religious education slot in the day], if we so wished; an impossibility for working parents.

“Gradually, the situation became untenable: they learned all of the prayers and religious stories by osmosis; a student publicly ‘corrected’ my son in a history class, when he said that Adam and Eve were the first people, not ‘prehistoric people’, as my son had said; priests visits were not seen as religious events, and so no option to withdraw was given. One day, in the aptly titled ‘Communion Year’, he came home upset because a friend told him that he felt sorry for him, because ‘he wouldn’t be going to heaven’.”

Colm O'Connor, principal, Educate Together secondary school in Cork - man standing on the street holding a sign wearing shirt and blue jacket - with quote - We loved many things about the primary school but felt that we had no viable option but to withdraw our children.

The children were hearing conflicting ideas about death: “At home, we did not tell them that their little sister (who had died as a baby) was in heaven. This was not theoretical to our family; it was fundamental to our children’s experience of loss and our efforts, as a family, to cope with that loss.”

Eventually, O’Connor and his wife made the decision to withdraw their children and move to them to the ‘nearest’ Educate Together, a 90-minute round commute every day.

“We loved many things about the school, but felt that we had no viable option but to withdraw our children, a decision that we should not have had to make. We didn’t want to leave – we just wanted them to experience dignity in school.”

Here we outline, illustrated by submissions to Noteworthy from parents and educators, the key problems non-diversification of the primary education system would mean; and hear what solutions may address these challenges.

CHALLENGE: Slow political response to demand

Parents told us that they often have no choice but to send their child to the local Catholic school. Two accounts we heard:

“It was a very difficult decision [to send our child to a Catholic school]. The commute to the nearest Educate Together is 50 minutes each way and not sustainable… Neither of us work in this town, there’s no bus service but there is a Catholic school in the village, so we’ve no real choice. My partner wanted our children to have friends in their community.”

“I had no choice in the matter. My child was on the waiting list for Educate Together from the age of one, but did not get a place . We live in a city where we have over 10 Catholic schools and a Protestant school nearby, but there was no option of a non-religious education for my child.”

SOLUTION: Action and supply

Jane Donnelly, a long-time campaigner on this issue and education officer with Atheist Ireland, believes that in fact, many politicians want change. “They don’t want to be forcing non-religious people into religion, but they have given so much power and control to the church and they don’t know how to get out of it,” she said.

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Sinn Féin spokesperson on education, said that the Department of Education and Skills (DES) are not responding quickly enough to the demand that exists from parents for an education choice for their children.

He told Noteworthy: “The Programme for Government can make all the commitments it wants, but without a clear roadmap for achieving these targets, these goals will continue to be unmet, and children will continue to be excluded on the grounds that they are [of] the wrong religion or from a non-religious background.”

Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education, UCC - woman with blonde/grey hair wearing white shirt and blue cardigan - with quote - It is the nature of the Department of Education to be conservative... progress is too dependent on the minister of the day.

Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education at University College Cork and a founding member of the Educate Together movement, said that the process needs a reforming minister to move it forward.

“It is in the nature of the Department of Education to be more conservative than other government departments,” she said. “Its purpose is conservation and caution, and it always has been. Progress is too dependent on the minister of the day.”

She said that Ruairi Quinn was supportive in his language but he didn’t really move it forward, while Mary O’Rourke (minister for education, 1987-1991) and Gemma Hussey (1982-86) resolved specific issues around providing parents with more choice via the Educate Together movement, while she points to Dick Burke (1973-76), a member of the Irish Catholic organisation Knights of Columbanus, as someone who opposed multi-denominational options.

Many regard Richard Bruton as the minister who did the most to advance Quinn’s plan, but few feel that those who can make change are acting with urgency.

Paul Rowe, the former CEO of Educate Together, suggested that parents should be surveyed on their preference by an independent body before their child begins school, allowing the Government to make decisions and provide resources based on the annual review.

“In the small number of surveys undertaken by the DES in the past 10 years, most parents have preferred inclusive or equality-based education for their children,” he said.

Máire de Barra, one of a group of parents in Cork mobilising against Flourish, a new primary school relationships and sexuality programme developed by the Irish Bishops Conference and offered for use in almost 90% of all primary schools, says political will could make all the difference in stripping religion from the delivery of RSE.

She cites the Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, introduced by Solidarity-PBP deputies, which has been stuck at the third stage (currently before the Dáil) for three years. If passed, legislation would “guarantee the right of students to receive factual and objective relationships and sexuality education without regard to the characteristic spirit of the school” – in other words, removing a religious ethos from its delivery.

CHALLENGE: When opting out means exclusion

A large quotient of parents and teachers who contacted Noteworthy said they are either “happy enough” with the status quo or willing to overlook concerns they may have.

Many also confirmed that they almost never attend a weekly Mass service but said that some of the rituals of the Catholic church, particularly communion and confirmation, are largely positive experiences for children.

Two teachers who got in contact with Noteworthy had divergent views:

“I have had lots of children through the years in my class who were not Catholic who did not participate in religious lessons. In this case I gave them another activity to do while they remained in the classroom. It was not an option for them to leave the class (no supervision available).”

The second told us:

“I’ve prepared children for First Holy Communion and on the whole my experience is that the vast majority of parents want their children to make their Communion and Confirmation during their school journey.

“The question is how do we ensure that the children who are non-religious or of different religions have access to a school that reflects this. In small rural schools or small town schools is this possible? Do we stop all Catholic patronage? Would the people of Ireland want this? Or is it a matter of providing more choice in higher populated urban areas.”

Some parents said they had more mixed feelings on religion and the sacraments:

“Preparation took up a huge amount of time in the school day. Parents have suggested many interesting activities such as biodiversity education and global citizenship education but we were told there wasn’t enough time or space in the curriculum.

“Then hours and hours are spent preparing kids for [the] Communion ceremony. Having said that, kids loved being part of a ‘special ceremony’ but this could be achieved in a more inclusive way with a bit of creative thinking.”

Teachers can feel pressured, however, into at least ‘pretending’ to be practising Catholics:

“As a teacher, I have to ‘pretend’ to engage in prayer to save face in front of the principal and other staff members. I think it is crazy that 2.5 hours per week is still assigned to religious instruction and that I have to teach children what their parents believe in.”

Noteworthy has interviewed several teachers who left the profession because they felt forced, against their conscience, into giving children Catholic religious instruction. This is just one of their stories:

“The stress of Ash Wednesday as a teacher. It took four years before I found the courage to decline. It’s one thing avoiding taking communion at a mass, but no ashes is an all-day statement – a statement that does not align with the school ethos.

“Enjoying music and knowing a few chords, I set up a choir. This landed me in charge of the communion and confirmation every year as well as planned and surprise masses. Once Christmas was finished choir practice became hymn time. The kids hated it.

“I’d find myself sitting in planning meetings observing prayers and blessings, feeling awkward. ‘I think the Bishop would love to hear something in Italian and something in Irish.’ The amount of time and planning and rehearsing that goes into the confirmation is ridiculous. In my second year conducting I was asked to wear ‘something nice like a dress’. I’m not a teacher anymore, the stress that avoiding religion caused was part of the reason I left.”

Over five years after the removal of section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, a move which means that schools can not discriminate against LGBTQI+ teachers on the basis of their sexuality, many are still afraid to speak about their personal life:

“As a teacher, I’ve hidden my sexual identity for fear of repercussions. While there has been some positive societal change as of late, this still has trickled down to many primary schools. The BOM (Board of Management) in my school rigorously defends the Catholic ethos and if I came out as gay, I’d fear for my chances of any type of promotion. I think they could make my life quite difficult.

“In the past few years, I’ve had to sit through awful conversations in the staff room that were homophobic. No one called a halt to them as they were afraid to speak out with the principal being a devout Catholic.”

In her new book, A Brave New Vision for Education in Ireland: The Dalkey School Project 1974-84, Hyland outlines how, in the first half of the State’s existence, the school day was devised to ensure that minority faith members – particularly, given the political sensitivities of the partition of the island of Ireland, Protestant – were not forced to take part in Catholic instruction.

One Protestant parent spoke of their experience:

“I spoke to my children’s teachers and asked for my children not to take part in specific Catholic lessons / priest visits etc. They were very understanding but not much has changed and my daughters still come home talking about specific Catholic references and blessing themselves. They are only young so don’t understand why they are different or what it means.”

Speaking at a 2019 event hosted by Northern Ireland’s Integrated Education Fund which supports the growth of integrated education, Professor Alan Smith, UNESCO chair of education at Ulster University, said that, if those who want a united Ireland are serious about an all-Ireland project, they would look at the education system and see if it is a diverse and inclusive system that unionists would want to be part of.

“There remains a perception in the north that the Catholic church retains significant control of the Republic’s education system,” Paul Caskey, IEF campaign director, said.

Hyland said that non-Catholic parents in Catholic schools don’t necessarily see a problem in a well-run school, particularly if it’s reasonably flexible on religion. “It is not realistic to expect that parents and teachers who are satisfied with the school their children are attending are likely to agree to divestment.”

Hyland believes, however, that the current system does not suit the church well: because they have to accept children from all religious backgrounds and none, the Catholic ethos is diluted.

“They fight to keep the schools but the data shows their past pupils are not attending church and are not coming out of years of Catholic instruction with Catholic beliefs.

“There are issues around teaching on [LGBTIQ+] matters and other contentious issues – but despite the Church controlling RSE, teenagers don’t believe a word of it. That is extraordinary; I believed everything I was told. I know from speaking to so many [young people] that the church’s views go over their head. If they’re told sex before marriage is wrong, they laugh at it.”

PV 280521 Parents 11 (1) Cork parents who are campaigning against the use of the bishops' Flourish RSE resources in Catholic primary schools; (l-r) Sharon Sheahan, Karl Sweeney, Máre de Barra, Catherine O'Mahony, Deirdre de Barra. Daragh Mc Sweeney / Provision Daragh Mc Sweeney / Provision / Provision

SOLUTION: Flexibility

Roughly half of parents with children in Educate Together schools who contacted Noteworthy said that they prepare their children for the sacraments outside school hours.

At many multi-denominational schools, the doors open for all children on the local communion day, irrespective of who passes through the ceremony, while some Educate Together schools, recognising the central place of symbolism and ritual, run a ‘Growing Up’ ceremony for all second class children, irrespective of whether they’ve taken part in a religious ritual.

One non-religious parent said:

“All these rites of passage were marked long before the church was here. They have taken them over but they belong to everyone.”

Some non-religious parents have been providing alternatives so that their children may feel more included:

“We had a non-communion day where we marked him growing up with a special treat: a trip to Clara Lara fun park.”

Hyland acknowledges the issue is complex but said there are both short and long-term solutions.

“Either take religion out of school altogether, or go back to how things were. When I was growing up, religion was at the end of the school day, you could not have holy pictures on the walls and there was a series of rules that explicitly required schools to separate religious and secular instruction,” she recalls.

“A notice had to go on the door during religious instruction, parents could easily opt out and the school had to provide separate classrooms. The DES can set the rules and could make this change today.”

Colm O’Connor said that the nature of an integrated curriculum means this will not be a solution, and that, whereas promoting cross-curricular links is best educational practice, parents can’t opt their children out of religious instruction and evangelisation because Catholic doctrine appears in subjects like art, history, English, Irish and so on.
Both O’Connor and Hyland think that this should change.

“The DES could bring in rules mandating that secular subjects should be kept separate from religion, which would mean that subjects like art are not religiously-themed,” said Hyland.

Bishop Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin - man with grey hair and glasses wearing black and clerical collar - with quote - The message it - putting RE to the end of the day - sends out is that religious education is an accessory and, if you don't do it, you get off school early.

Kevin Doran, bishop of Elphin, is wary, and his response explains the hesitation in the church and possibly among some trustees and policy-makers.

“That might seem to be a pragmatic solution, but the message it sends out is that religious education is an accessory and, if you don’t do religious education, you get off school early. It is certainly better if parents who do not want religious education in the Catholic tradition were in a position to send their children elsewhere.

“This is an argument in favour of divestment, so that Catholic schools can provide better for those who want a Catholic education, while facilitating others in having their children educated according to a different ethos,” he said.

CHALLENGE: ‘Othering’ other religions in a Catholic school

Many schools happily facilitate opt-outs. One parent said:

“My children were never forced into the religious aspect in their Catholic school. One chose to make communion/confirmation and one chose not to. Neither were treated differently. There are lots of children of different religions and none in their class.”

Other parents reported that their experience of being non-Catholic in a Catholic school was a less supportive one.

A Muslim mother said that she tried to raise her concern with the school:

“It fell on deaf ears. I was raised Catholic. There is plenty taught in Catholic schools that contradict Catholic ethos, but don’t try to tell the admin that you want them to respect your daughters religious beliefs, because then it’s a Catholic school.”

In 2017, The Journal spoke to Roopesh Panicker, a Hindu parent, about how his daughter couldn’t get a school place because she was not Catholic. At the time, the baptism barrier, which prioritised admission for the children of Catholic parents, was still in place; it has since been abolished.

Roopesh Panicker, parent-campaigner against baptism barrier in 2017 - man with black hair wearing shirt and tie - with quote - There are so many migrants who feel forced into Catholicism. I've been treated like a troublemaker for not just going along with it.

We caught up with him four years later:

“Our daughter eventually got a place in a Catholic school 6km away and is now in fourth class. There is now about a third of the class opting out of religion and, with the pandemic on, they sit in on the class while religion is taught instead of going to the library.

“It’s hard for them not to hear what’s happening in class, because they’re not even at the back of the class: sometimes they’re sitting beside a student who is actively participating in religion. I’m born Hindu but we want our child to make her own decisions; she is just a child and I don’t want to force her into anything.

“Ireland is different today and there are so many migrants who feel forced into Catholicism. I’ve been treated like a troublemaker for not just going along with it and it has affected our personal lives.”

Martin Long, spokesperson for the bishops through the Catholic Communication Office, told Noteworthy that “students who do not wish to participate in faith classes are facilitated as practically as possible by the school, subject to its resources and as per guidelines from the Department of Education”.

He added: “A Catholic education is a wholly positive and faith enriching experience, one which provides an atmosphere of love and mutual respect, recognises the inherent dignity of each member of the school community while at all times fostering the potential of our God-given gifts. Therefore the ethos of a Catholic school permeates the entire school day. If any person objects to participation in sacramental preparation then this choice is respected and treated sensitively.”

Solution: Towards a human-rights approach

Those in favour of change are increasingly leaning into a human rights-based approach to religion in schools. This would, they say, ensure constitutional respect for freedom of religious belief while also respecting the constitutional right to hold no religion.

Some want to see the reconfiguration process scrapped altogether.

Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), said that “human rights principles need to be the State’s benchmark in relation to education”.

Gibney’s view is backed by Hyland, Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland and Dr Kate Stapleton, a lecturer in education at Mary Immaculate College in Thurles, where she teaches a module on diversity and inclusion.

Dr Stapleton recently published research on the voice of minority faith students in Catholic second-level schools. Although she speaks primarily from post-primary experience, the issues she highlights are relevant to both primary and post-primary schools.

She said that our cultural attachment to Catholicism may make divestment and reconfiguration the wrong starting point.

“Currently, the human right to religious freedom is provided for in schools via ‘opt-out’ provisions. However research has found that this is not working and students report experiencing denial of the right to opt-out, unworkable provision, othering, stereotyping and stigma.

“Regardless of the patron, schools should uphold human rights and not discriminate on any of the nine grounds outlined in the Equal Status Acts, and there should be no derogation from that regardless of ethos. The State should ensure human rights are upheld in all State-funded schools.”

Dr Kate Stapleton, lecturer in education, Mary I, with focus on inclusion - woman with blonde hair and glasses wearing blue top with trees in background - with quote - Students report experiencing denial of the right to opt out, unworkable provision, othering, stereotype and stigma.

There is a third, multi-belief space, said Stapleton. “Research with young people in Ireland has repeatedly found they want to be educated together and not segregated on religious grounds. This is not about getting rid of Catholic schools, which have their part to play. It is about ensuring a balancing of rights and freedoms where all schools model inclusion and the upholding of human rights.”

So what might an inclusive school with a human rights framework – but which retains its Catholic patrons – look like?

Stapleton said it would include, for instance, reflections instead of prayers at whole school events, with a separate mass for parents who want their children to attend.

Challenge: Resistance from Catholic patrons

To individual Catholic schools, change can feel like an existential threat. In April 2019, two Catholic schools in the Malahide and Portmarnock area wrote to parents that divestment could lead to Christmas, carol services and nativity plays not being celebrated if the church lost its patronage.

Educate Together called the claims “incorrect and misleading” and the DES rebutted them and the minister for education, Joe McHugh, called them “misinformation”.

Ultimately, the row was defused because the DES accepted the case that what was needed was not a divestment but a new school to cater for a larger population, and there is now a Malahide and Portmarknock Educate Together school.

Alex is the mother of non-Catholic children in a Catholic school, also in the east of the country. Although she was willing to be identified herself, she said that most parents at the school were not, and so we agreed to change her name.

Together with five other mothers, she has approached the school with concerns that her children are being indoctrinated against her wishes as a parent.

“The only local school is Catholic, we didn’t want to be pushed out of the community that we love.

“We asked to be informed when the class was being taken to church, but we weren’t given the time to be able to do anything about it. Our kids told us that they were in church for two hours a day, with nothing to do but watch and not take part.

“You silently fume, but you don’t want your children to feel too different. There are prayers when school starts, and then a prayer at little break, and then he is told to read a book by himself.”

Alex feels that the school – and its patron, the archdiocese of Dublin – is obstructing the change that parents want.

“The parents association was surveyed by the diocese, through the board of management, on whether we wanted sacramental preparation outside school time. We voted for change. We told the principal how we felt about our children taking part in religion, and she said that children like religion.

“Every parent who wants to opt their child out has to have a one-on-one conversation with the principal. When I arrived, there was a ‘Covid compliance’ officer in the room – it felt like two against one. Then another teacher came in to be ‘timekeeper’, so it felt like three against one. They tried to persuade us that there was good stuff in the lessons including learning about Martin Luther King.”

As shown in part one of this series, the Department of Education has structured the process so that individual schools and patrons must voluntarily decide to change the ethos of their school. There is little to no administrative support, or even guidelines, to a principal who would take on this burden, the patron and board can be resistant, and it is difficult to persuade a majority of parents to divest to an unfamiliar school.

Ciarán (not his real name) describes himself and his partner as “lapsed Catholics”. He was elected to serve on the board of management of a Catholic primary school where some parents wanted to change patron:

“The principal and the chair of the board were not happy with my election, particularly as they associated me with a parent who had spoken out for change.

“So they gave me some documents to sign, one of which included a declaration that I was abiding by the Catholic faith. I know it is important not to put your signature to something that isn’t true. They told me I couldn’t join the board. But I got a special dispensation from the bishop so then they said I could.

“I was sidelined from the outset. At the first meeting, divestment was brought up and I was told they wouldn’t support or agree to it. My position on the board was constantly questioned.

“When I left, they announced that whoever was going forward to replace me would need to sign the document promising to abide by the Catholic faith.”

Ciarán said that a minority of parents and teachers are practicing Catholics, most are ambivalent, and some, like him, don’t want their children being indoctrinated into the Catholic voices.

“But the divestment process that the DES has structured freezes out our voices – and the possibility of change.”

Solution: A Citizens’ Assembly on Education

The Programme for Government contains a commitment to a Citizens’ Assembly on education, structured in the same way as the recent assembly on gender equality and the assemblies whose conclusions paved the way for the majorities in the 2015 and 2018 referenda on marriage equality and abortion.

Aodhán Ó Riordáin, Labour spokesperson on education - man with brown hair wearing shirt and suit jacket - with quote - If a Citizen's Assembly on education is looking at religion, it also needs to look more widely, eg, why parents spend so much time fundraising for their school.

Aodhán Ó Riordáin, Labour party spokesperson on education, said that a Citizens’ Assembly on the role of the Church in education should be a priority, but that it should look more widely at why the State does not take responsibility for education.

This, he told Noteworthy, could encompass the relationship between parents, schools and the State; why we separate children by gender; why we have so many primary schools and so many patrons; why the system is so underfunded that parents are asked for voluntary contributions; and how those who can’t afford them feel sidelined from their child’s education.

“If it’s all about criticising religion, there will be less buy-in than if we’re also talking about why parents have to spend so much time fundraising for their child’s school,” he says.

Speaking in the Dáil on 30 July 2020, Minister for Education Norma Foley said she was “hugely supportive of a Citizens’ Assembly on Education, but that all education partners should be consulted before its terms of reference were set.

“This could be wide ranging, including constitutional issues, or it could focus on very specific areas of interest,” the Minister said.

“At this point, four weeks into the job, I intend to formulate a three-year strategy and annual implementation plan which will incorporate priority actions from the programme for Government. This will include at its centre the citizens’ assembly on the future of education. I will publish the details of that before the end of the year.”

The Minister published this three-year strategy last week, consisting of goals and strategic actions. These include a commitment to “begin exploratory work on a citizens’ assembly on the future of education.” No timelines are given.

Hyland offers a note of caution: “Change is hard to bring about in education, but countries that turn their education systems upside down sometimes come to regret it.”

For Colm O’Connor, change can’t come fast enough.

“Parents are supposed to be the primary educators of our children, according to Ireland’s constitution. But in school, our views had no protection and there was no real way to opt-out.

“Many parents see the futility of this situation and so avoid the potential embarrassment and stress by not asserting their religious rights. This is a form of state-supported coercive control and amounts to a denial of religious freedom.

“For many non-faith or minority faith students, parents and teachers alike, the situation has become obscene and absurd. It must change.”


The government’s commitment to provide 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 has no roadmap or interim targets, and change is not happening quickly enough: Read part one of this investigation into the ‘reconfiguration’ of primary education in Ireland HERE.


This investigation was carried out by Peter McGuire for Noteworthy and edited by Susan Daly. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers. 

Noteworthy is the community-sourced investigative journalism platform from The Journal. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

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