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Department of Education. Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Opinion To achieve equal education, we must remove religious instruction from school hours

Paddy Monahan of Education Equality says it’s time to separate religion and education, once and for all.

THIS IS AN article about school patronage and religion. There will be plenty of statistics, percentages and raw figures. There will be references to legislation and policy.

But above all, you will hear the real voices of those actually affected by the daily religious discrimination and segregation that is woven into the fabric of our schools. They are the voices that we believe the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, has chosen to ignore.

You are treated as if they are doing you a favour by letting your kids go there even though it is your local school.

- Louise, parent.

I felt we were shown no respect and treated as less of a person because we were not a certain religion. I had grown up in that community.

- Shane, parent.

One parent commented on how good the principal was for letting “people like us” into the school.

- Susanna, parent.

I don’t do religion… I feel left out when my friends talk about their communion parties.

- Sarah, 2nd Class.

Effects on non-religious students

There are over 3,100 primary schools in Ireland. Almost 90% of these taxpayer-funded schools are controlled by Catholic patrons, while a further 5% are run by Protestant denominations.

Half an hour of class time is spent every day in these schools on faith formation/evangelisation – this does not include daily prayers, regular trips to church, unannounced visits by clergy, and so on.

A huge amount of class time is also given over to sacramental preparation. That’s a huge amount of time not spent on education.

One parent I spoke to said her daughter was in confirmation year but not participating in religious instruction. The teacher would not let her work on her project during religion class and insisted instead that she learn Irish spellings for the duration of the religious preparation period. One day that period lasted four hours. What value is that to one child, where does the education of this child feature in our education system?

The basic, minimum level of weekly faith formation throughout all eight years of primary school is two and a half hours per week. By comparison, history, geography and science combined are allocated a total of three hours per week. 

Children missing out

Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution explicitly sets out “the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”.

The manner in which schools around the country “uphold” this right is by requiring parents to request that their child be allowed to opt-out of religious instruction. If their child is the only one not getting religious instruction, they will then sit alone for this period every day, segregated within the classroom (but absorbing every word of the lesson) while their peers sing songs and interact with one another.

The US Supreme Court addressed much of this in the 1960s. The Court noted that the segregation of students during religious instruction “carried with it the imputation of punishment for bad conduct” and that parents and children “may well avoid claiming their right and simply continue to participate in exercises distasteful to them because of an understandable reluctance to be stigmatised”.

The 2018 School Admissions Act proved toothless in addressing the obvious problems with this “opt-out” approach. The Act states that schools must “provide details” of how they will uphold a child’s right not to receive religious instruction. However, no guidance was given as to how schools should do this and there is no oversight mechanism.

Schools work around this by requiring that parents wishing to exercise their rights arrange a meeting with the principal. Far from “providing details”, schools continue to place the onus on parents to opt their children out of religious instruction.

But here’s a thought: Why not simply offer religious instruction after school on an opt-in basis? This proposal has been central to Education Equality’s campaign since the group was formed by concerned parents in 2015. Surely this approach would satisfy everyone – those who want their children to receive religious instruction at school and those who don’t?

The argument for ‘opt-in’

It’s a simple fix – but successive ministers for education don’t seem to want to do things the easy way. Which leads us to the divestment process, now celebrating its 10th birthday. So how is that working out?

In 2012 the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector proposed divestment as a way of addressing the lack of multi-denominational schools. The idea, in short, was that some religious-run schools would transfer patronage to multi-denominational patrons to better reflect the diverse Ireland of the 21st century.

It’s difficult to be sure exactly how many primary schools have changed patrons in the past 10 years but Carl O’Brien, the education editor at the Irish Times, puts the figure at around 20. It’s worth reminding ourselves that there are over 3,100 primary schools in Ireland and around 95% are run by religious patrons. Emma O’Kelly, RTÉ’s education correspondent, also notes the very small number of transfers and observes that they tend to be “tiny rural schools on the brink of closure due to dwindling numbers”.

The now 10-year plan to address religious control of Irish schools has therefore been an abject failure – and yet it remains essentially the sum total of Government policy. It has proven to be a colossal distraction and waste of time as yet more generations of Irish children pass through an education system steeped in religion. 

But how would things look if divestment had been a success? Current plans may give us some idea. Since 2018, the Department of Education has proposed a “plan” for 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030. Progress towards this target to date is not encouraging.

There have been no interim divestment targets for this process and no progress reports. In any event, this figure only equates to less than 15% of primary schools. The fact is, the local Catholic primary school will remain the only option for most Irish families.

Even leaving aside the back-of-a-napkin nature of the Department of Education planning for multi-denominational schools, is this approach really what we want? Taken to its logical conclusion, what we are pursuing is “a school for every religion in the audience”: Catholic schools for Catholic children, Protestant schools for Protestant children, Muslim schools, Jewish schools and so on. This is touted, unexamined, as a good thing under the banner of “choice”. Choice is good, right?

But what other Western country has built the future of its education system around religious differences? Did any parents ask for this? At its heart, the Irish approach to education is segregationist – an approach where children only mix with those from backgrounds identical to their own.

In reality, the Government’s “school choice” approach is designed not to bring about significant change, but to ensure that the Catholic Church will continue to control the education of the vast majority of our children into the future.

We need to stop over-complicating this issue. Education Equality’s approach is fair and reasonable: Any religious faith formation in our publicly-funded schools should be offered after school hours on an opt-in basis. Who could argue with that?

Paddy Monahan is a parent and Policy Officer with Education Equality, a human rights advocacy group campaigning for equal respect for all children at school, regardless of religion. The group believes that religious instruction and worship should be removed from the curriculum and offered on an optional basis outside core school hours. Their petition has reached almost 7,000 signatures. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter or contact them at


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