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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
million dollar question

"It's not something that should be up for vote" - can the problem with religion in Irish schools be solved?

96% of Ireland’s national schools are still run by religious orders with the divestment of education proceeding at a snail’s pace.

Pasted image at 2016_07_28 01_11 PM

AS 96% OF Irish primary schools are religious-run, enrolment policies are coming under more and more scrutiny each September. In this three-day special series, explores the role religion plays in our classrooms and what’s being done in the sector.

Religion in Ireland has never been an easy subject, not least when it comes to educating the country’s children.

Sixteen years into the 21st century, the problem of faith in the classroom has been brought to boiling point with the issue of divestment of schools, or the removal of a proportion of our 3,266 national schools from the patronage of the church. It’s been a long time coming, and there’s an awful long way to go.

Ireland has gone through an incredible amount of social change in the last 30 years, and an inability to keep everyone happy has led to stasis. Divestment is an attempt to ease the pressure caused by a lack of educational choice.

Fundamentally, the current drive for divestment was put in place in 2011 by then Education Minister Labour’s Ruairi Quinn to tackle the fact that Ireland’s education system was fundamentally skewed towards those of Catholic faith at best, and at worst basically failed to provide education to children who were not of that (or in some cases any) faith as a basic human right.

shutterstock_217007689 Shutterstock / racorn Shutterstock / racorn / racorn

Stories of parents who have baptised their children purely to get them into a national school are never far from the headlines here. They have done so because they have no choice if they want to see their children educated.

Divestment to effectively-secular institutions like Educate Together schools is the solution the Irish government came up with in 2011. Fifty schools was the target number for voluntary removal from church patronage. So far eight have been divested.

However, the first inklings of the strategy were in fact seen in the previous Fianna Fáil government with the initiation of the Community National School (CNS) project by then Education Minister Mary Hanafin. That was 2007.

The Community National School project concerns schools that teach religion within class hours, but where no one religion is favoured over any other. Under this initiative children are segregated along faith lines for their religious instruction. At present there are 11 Community National Schools in Ireland.

In theory there should be no barrier to any child’s attendance being accepted at at CNS (this is not the case with Catholic-patroned schools who under the Equal Status Act 2000 are effectively entitled to discriminate against a child by virtue of their religion).

The key focal points for divestment in our schools are areas (mostly rural) where diversity of choice for parents as regards their children’s education basically doesn’t exist. So the onus is on the Catholic Church to give up its premises to other, less overtly religious institutions.

The issue would be an easy one for someone who is not either a parent or expecting a child to miss, but if you’re in either of those scenarios, and particularly if you are of no religious faith, it’s a big problem.

So what can be done to fix it?

Church endorsed

At present primary schools in Ireland fall into three categories – either church-patroned (the overwhelming majority, almost 3,140 schools), Community National Schools, and Educate Together institutions.

Educate Together schools are effectively secular with no religion taught during school hours, and a policy of acceptance of all applicants. Their popularity, particularly in Dublin, means the limited places available are hopelessly swamped by demand.

malahide Google Maps Malahide/Portmarnock Educate Together National School, Kinsealy, north Dublin Google Maps

However, the approach favoured by the State via three successive governments has been to run with the CNS project, or those that cater for all denominations as regards within-school-hours religious education. The reason? Well, the Catholic Church here has had a large say in the direction of those schools, and CNS is the project the Church is happy to work with.

Other churches are not particularly happy with this approach. The Church of Ireland has said it would be “inappropriate to separate denominational groups for religious education as this runs counter to the concept of a school providing inclusive education”, while the Methodist Church said it was “in full agreement” with that sentiment.

The system also leaves Educate Together schools, where all religious education (if there is any) takes place after school hours on a voluntary basis, a little bit sidelined.

All told (and the figure is variable – everyone seems to have a different definition for whatever divestment means), roughly eight schools (two in Dublin and one each in Mayo, Meath, Waterford, Galway, Offaly, and Wexford) have been divested in the last five years, a painfully small amount by any standards given the initial target of 50. And another premises earmarked for divestment, in Castlebar, even managed to hit the headlines when Educate Together were bequeathed an abandoned school that hadn’t been occupied in ten years.

New Education Minister Richard Bruton has sought to take the problem on with a new school admissions Bill, and a vow to have a further 400 schools divested by 2030.

However, his “favoured approach”, like that of his three predecessors, is to focus on the CNS model as regards divestment. That means multi-denominational religious education in one school, which in turn means segregation of sorts, an issue which Educate Together is not one bit happy with. Other ventures include divestment into joint patronage with other bodies, and new schools.

ireland Google Maps The eight schools that have been divested across the country since 2011. Google Maps

But fundamentally, the CNS project appears to be the only show in town from the government’s point of view and has been for nearly 10 years. While that to an extent solves the ‘baptism barrier’ mentioned above, it opens up other problems, borne out by the fact that CNS is struggling for traction against Educate Together schools despite its governmental endorsement.

Educate Together

The problem with getting anyone to agree on anything to do with this subject can be traced back to a parental preferences survey carried out in 2013 by the Department of Education.

Of the parents consulted in five indicative areas of the country, 37% and 50% of them expressed support for a wider range of patronage in their area – while between 25% and 30% said they would avail of a wider choice of patronage were it available.

These findings were dismissed by the Catholic Schools Partnership as being “not based on a representative sample”.

Nonetheless, Educate Together says that of the three areas in Dublin in 2016 where children were registered for new schools, 1,173 children were signed up for its brand of education, with just 70 children signing up for CNS. That’s quite a gap by any standards.

Educate Together’s problems with the CNS template are well-documented – it sees CNS as segregationist (children from different faiths are split up when it comes to religious education) and unconstitutional (in that by separating children along faith lines, the schools are effectively in breach of Ireland’s laws regarding religious discrimination – non-faith schools having a responsibility to provide equal service for their students). However, as noted before, CNS is the format that the Church is prepared to do business with.

That in itself is enough to render non-religious households disinterested in the CNS model. In 2010, about 50% of Ireland’s Catholics identified strongly with their religion (ie attended mass at least once a week). About 50% didn’t. The impasse is obvious. But how do you make progress with divestment in such a quagmire of contrasting opinion?

For Luke O’Shaughnessy of Educate Together, the issue is primarily one of funding.

“There’s a combination of factors blocking divestment, but more than anything it has no real funding attached to it,” he says.

30/10/2013 Dublin Web Technology Summits Mark Stedman / Luke O'Shaughnessy Mark Stedman / /

It was seen as a no-cost programme when it was first initiated. The Department of Education is severely underfunded. You can’t do this on fresh air.

Educate Together has little time for the CNS model, as you might expect given the two formats are in direct competition with each other.

“They’re not a viable alternative to faith-based schools. How can they be when the Church itself has had such input into them?” says O’Shaughnessy.

He argues that a key problem is that Ireland’s educational system is completely unique, dominated almost completely by religious patronage.

This is not absolutely correct – other countries have had to deal with such dominance to a certain extent. However one thing is certain, the amount of time spent on religious education in Irish schools is twice that of other European countries.

But the slow pace with which anything gets done in Ireland does perhaps mark us out from the pack.

Equal Status Act

April Duff, legal officer with volunteer organisation Education Equality meanwhile sees two immediate solutions to the current problem – and divestment isn’t among them.

“Building schools, or divestment, isn’t the overall problem. The issue is that the majority of people want to be with other children without borders, and in schools at present that isn’t the case,” she says.

She sees two ways to deal with the issue of religion in schools: remove Section (7)(3)c of the Equal Status Act 2000 (which provides that a school can discriminate against a child as regards preference should that child’s religion contravene “the ethos” of the school), and place all religious instruction in Irish schools at the end of the school day.

“If you want to create equality you’re looking at changing the way that all state schools do things, every school that receives state funding,” she says.

In France, Catholic schools receive funding on the provision that they don’t discriminate. We need the same to happen here.

Like Educate Together, Duff has major misgivings regarding the CNS model.

“They were devised by a Fianna Fáil government in partnership with the Church. It’s the easy option, the Church backs it, and that’s what they’re happy with,” she says.

But the fact remains that that type of school creates an idea in a child’s head that there is a difference between people because of religions. You can see it in the north, it infects all aspects of life with prejudice. And prejudice leads to hate.

The other side

So, on one side of the divide we have a deep distrust of the CNS model. If Educate Toether’s figures are to be believed many parents seem to have little interest in it, particularly in Dublin. Educate Together itself scathing of it. But that’s the model that successive governments here have gone with.

So how do things seem from the other side?

Pat O’Mahony, Education Policy Officer with Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), the administrative board for the CNS programme, is adamant that Community National Schools are the only viable future option as regards divestment.

“What we’re talking about is a national school that allows all children in a community to go to school together,” he says.

I think we’ve had enough divisions on this island already. Children from the same community should be going through school together rather than having separate kinds of schools.

O’Mahony doesn’t believe that the Church has had too much input into the CNS project, saying that all the Church wants to achieve “is to ensure that Catholic children have the right to their belief”.


“The community college is a model solution in a way,” he says.

If you go to west Clare, you can’t have too many schools, you have to have one. I don’t think it’s right that someone in Tallaght should have greater opportunities than someone in Clare.
There is a sense now that we decry those who have a religious belief just because they have that belief.

But nor does the ETBI think that the situation of divestment is one that everyone should necessarily have a say in.  What’s best for everyone “shouldn’t be a popularity contest” says O’Mahony.

It isn’t a great idea to have a vote on this. I would contend that what a Community National School has to offer isn’t understood. With medical services, we don’t let people vote on the kind of medicine they should take.

“We have to have regard to costs as well as meeting the needs of the public,” he says.

What happens next?

All this shows a community still divided, and showing no great signs of being capable of meeting in the middle.

So what is likely to happen next? With the UN committee on the rights of the child putting pressure on the Irish government to create diversity in our educational system, is something set to give?

Richard Bruton has said that divestment remains the way forward and committed in June to the design of a road map for the future of child-education to cater for people of both religious belief and no belief.

But Bruton has only been education minister for a matter of months, and the odds are short on him being so for too much longer – the current government is on anything but solid foundations. This may account for his favouring of the CNS model despite it being seen as at odds with the majority of parents’ wishes, particularly in Dublin.

Likewise, Bruton’s school admissions Bill, while worthwhile in its commitment to the doing-away with of fees and waiting lists, does not really tackle the problem of a lack of choice for parents who don’t wish religion to be a part of their children’s education in any shape or form.

But the problem can be phrased in simpler terms. As things stand, less than 10 schools have been divested in five years. There are just 11 Community National Schools in Ireland. And church-patroned schools still account for 96% of what’s on offer to parents across the country.

We’ve a long way to go to come even close to balancing the scales.

Read: ‘Sham baptisms’: Priests struggle with reasons behind the ceremony while parents feel hypocrital

Read: Unbaptised and bottom of the list – frustrated and worried parents speak out

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