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FactCheck: Do multi-denominational schools not mark Christmas or Easter with events?

It has been claimed that a move away from Catholic patronage in schools means these holidays would no longer be marked with events.

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IT HAS BEEN reported that certain annual events will no longer be marked at a number of Dublin primary schools if these schools opt out of having a Catholic ethos. 

The government's ongoing divestment process forms part of the Department of Education’s efforts to provide greater diversity in schools and reduce the dominance of the Catholic Church in education.

The government has said it plans to offer an additional 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030. According to figures released by the department in December, the number of multi-denominational schools at secondary level has increased almost by 9% in the last 10 years - from 321 in 2009 to 349 in 2018.

At primary level, the number of multi-denominational schools has risen from 73 to 119 – an increase of 63%.

Options for patronage change include the multi-denominational Community National School model, the multi-denominational Educate Together, or the all-Irish An Foras Pátrúnachta, which is a patron of Gaelscoileanna which have a choice of a Catholic, multi-denominational and inter-denominational ethos. 

It has been claimed this week that the divestment process will result in Christmas, Easter and St Patrick's Day no longer being marked with events at the Dublin primary schools in question. 

But is this accurate? Do multi-denominational schools not mark Christmas, Easter or St. Patrick's Day with events?

The claim

The Irish Independent reported on Tuesday that eight Catholic primary schools in north Dublin could have their patronage transferred – or divested -  to multi-denominational schools and that parents were being consulted on the matter. 

Staff in two schools - Scoil an Duinnínigh in Swords and St Marnock’s NS in Portmarnock – are opposed to changing the schools' ethos and have made their opposition clear to parents through letters and at meetings with parents, the Irish Independent reported. 

It has been claimed by least one of these two schools - in meetings with parents and in letters sent - that Christmas fairs, carol services and nativity plays would no longer be held after a school is transferred and that St Patrick’s Day, St Brigid’s Day and Easter events would no longer be held in schools either.

On Wednesday, RTÉ reported that a third school - St Sylvester’s in Malahide - had told parents that a shift from Catholic patronage will result in "no more Christmas concerts" and "no more Halloween and Easter celebrations". 

In a leaflet, seen by TheJournal.ie, the school claims that if parents vote to shift from Catholic patronage to multi-denominational patronage it will result in a loss of identity and "uncertainty" at the primary school.

There will also be "no more St Patrick's Day celebrations", the leaflet states. 

St Sylvester's, Scoil an Duinnínigh and St Marnock’s NS have been contacted by TheJournal.ie to provide evidence for these claims. 

The evidence 

In response to queries from TheJournal.ie, Educate Together has said that it has no interest in “taking over” schools and “imposing an ethos against the will of any local school communities". 

The group has also said it has not been consulted regarding any divestments in Malahide-Portmarnock. The organisation is now calling for a forum where all stakeholders can exchange opinions and information. 

Meanwhile, Community National Schools tweeted: "A lot of misinformation circulating today about life in a multi-denominational school. We take a pluralist approach to celebrations in CNSs which reflect what is important in the lives of all our children."

According to the Irish Independent, St Marnock’s NS and Scoil an Duinnínigh have both held meetings with parents about the divestment process. Parents at all eight schools are due to vote on the divestment process and the Catholic Church will then submit feedback to the department. 

Last night, Minister for Education Joe McHugh said that the sharing of inaccurate information about what happens when the patron of a school is changed has created “fear and uncertainty” among parents. 

"Just to be clear – Christmas will not be cancelled. Neither will any other typical school holiday like Easter or St Patrick’s Day," McHugh added. 

So, what is the evidence for the claims distributed to parents? 

Educate Together has 84 primary and 13 second-level schools around Ireland with a total of 28,000 students. A spokesperson said that Christmas is marked in their schools nationwide, “just as our schools endeavour to mark Diwali, Eid, Vaisakhi and other religious festivals throughout the school term". 

Francis Fullen, chairperson of Firhouse Educate Together National School in Dublin has said that each major religious faith is given "equal time" at Firhouse school and that each Educate Together school decides how to mark or celebrate annual events.

"Christmas, Easter and St. Patrick's Day are all marked...in the school in the same way Ramadan is celebrated, Diwali is celebrated."

Christmas is celebrated by decorating the school, for instance, similarly to the autumn Hindu festival Diwali, according to Fullen. "Everybody gets their equal time, equal amount of [decorations] on the walls."

It's not that Christmas is ignored, or other festivals are ignored, it's that everyone is given equal time.

St Patrick's Day and Easter are also marked by Firhouse school, Fullen said. 

Capture St. Sylvester's Primary School, Malahide Source: GoogleMaps

Seamus Conboy, the primary support officer for Community National Schools, told TheJournal.ie that multi-denominational schools celebrate all religions and beliefs. "We are very open to celebrating various beliefs," Conboy has said. 

Individual Community National schools mark or celebrate annual events in a multi-denominational way, Conboy has said.

In other words, there's a balance of celebrations and equal time and effort is given to different faiths and beliefs. 

"We'd have Christmas trees. We could have a crib," Conboy has said of the school he is principal of. "Some schools will organise concerts where there'd be Christmas songs sung. They wouldn't necessarily be religious songs but they'd be Christmas songs."

Pupils are also taught about the importance of Christmas - particularly to Christians. "I've children in my own school who'd write Christmas cards," Conboy said. 

Conboy has said that holidays like Christmas, Easter and St Patrick's Day "are marked" in Community National Schools. 

The verdict

To recap: letters sent to parents said that if their children's school switches from Catholic patronage to multi-denominational patronage, Christmas, Easter and St Patrick's Day would not be celebrated. 

It is clear, however, that multi-denominational schools do mark these annual events, yet not in a strictly religious way.

The information distributed to parents does not provide any evidence to support claims that Christmas concerts or St Patrick's Day and Easter events will no longer be held under a multi-denominational setup. 

The claims by the school could be interpreted in a strictly religious, doctrinal sense. Christmas mass, nativity plays and Easter services could be termed a "celebration" by the faithful. It depends to what extent each primary school marks these religious holidays that they could be termed "celebrations".  For others, these holidays are simply marked or celebrated by decorating Christmas trees or buying Easter Eggs, leaving aside the religious, ceremonial aspects. 

As a result, we rate the claim that multi-denominational schools do not mark Christmas, Easter and St Patrick's Day with events: Mostly FALSE

These schools may not hold events marking Christmas, Easter or St Patrick's Day every single year.

The policy of the organisations that run these schools is that individual schools are open to hold events, however, and are not prohibited from marking the festival. As mentioned above, these schools mark religious festivals by incorporating elements of different religious faiths.

As per our verdict guide, this means “There is an element of truth in the claim, but it is missing critical details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs against the claim.”

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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