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Column: Louise O’Keeffe ruling shows Ireland's school patronage system is unworkable

The State is responsible for the rights of students in the national school system even if the schools are run by patron bodies, writes Peter Ferguson.

Peter Ferguson

TÁINAISTE EAMON GILMORE concluded that the European Court’s judgement in the Louise O’Keeffe case has “very serious implications for the relationship between the State and the patronage of our schools”.

The State had been arguing that it was not responsible for Louise O’Keeffe’s human rights as the school was run by a patron body, not by the State itself. The European Court, however, has now told the State that it is responsible for the rights of students in the national school system even if the schools are run by patron bodies.

One of the wider implications of this ruling is the discriminatory nature of religiously-run national schools. Under the current system the overwhelming majority of national schools are given to religious institutions to run. This inevitably leads to the discrimination of children whose parents are non-religious or members of a minority religion. In admissions, the schools give first preference to members of their own religion and they can also integrate their religious ethos throughout their entire curriculum. This denies the rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of and from religion for any student who is not a member of that religion.

Some schools are still allowed to discriminate

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has raised this issue with the Irish government and informed them that the current system breaches the human rights of secular parents. But the State continues to support religious discrimination. The Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000 both allow religiously-run national schools to discriminate, even going as far as permitting schools to refuse to hire, and even fire, a person for being homosexual.

When the State passed the European Convention on Human Rights Act in 2003 it only applied to “organs of the State”, which does not include national schools. This meant that children whose rights were breached in the national school system could not take a case. The Louise O’Keeffe case changed all that. It is now the responsibility of the State to protect the rights of children in national schools, even if the State does not have direct control. The European Court also told Ireland that it must provide an effective remedy for those whose rights have been breached.

Instituting a secular education system

This makes the patronage system unworkable. If schools continue to be excluded from the European Convention of Human Rights Act then there is no effective remedy in Ireland and parents can go directly to the European Court. And if the schools are to be included within the Act then the State must remove the “religious ethos” exemptions from the aforementioned Equality Acts.

The only manner in which the government can comply with both the European Court and the European Convention of Human Rights Act is to institute a secular education system. In a secular education system no one religion is taught. It either omits religion from the curriculum entirely or multiple religions are taught in an informative manner as opposed to the faith formation and indoctrination which is the current method of religious education.

Only in a secular education system can you ensure the basic human rights of all parents and children, allowing them freedom of conscience and belief, freedom from discrimination, and equality before the law.

The benefits of a secular education

However, there are wider benefits to secular education. It has been shown in several studies that it is more beneficial for children if they are taught independently and critically about religion and morality. A 2004 study by Dr Steve Trickey and Professor Keith Topping analyses the effects of a more critical approach to life’s “Big Questions”. In a pioneering programme, instead of being taught a certain religion’s viewpoint regarding life, religion, death, morality etc, children were encouraged to collectively discuss these topics in a critical and objective manner.

The programme was trialled with great success. There were measurable increases in IQ and it helped to build self-esteem and confidence among students. By encouraging a respectful dialogue among students an improved behaviour within the schools was observed and the level of bullying was reduced. Even one hour a week of philosophical enquiry in primary schools yields sustainable gains in cognitive ability, increases critical thinking skills and promotes social and emotional development.

Stimulating and challenging ideas

In a report on the programme Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, found that “the thought-provoking and exciting curriculum the school has developed over the last two years is an outstanding component of the school’s success, […] this includes the development of ‘Philosophy for Children’, a powerful tool which both excites the pupils and gives them the confidence to explore stimulating and challenging ideas and concepts. It not only strengthens their academic learning, but also encourages their empathy for others and gives them insights into the adult world.”

The government clearly cannot maintain the patronage system in its current form. In maintaining the existing system the government is continuing to treat secular individuals as second-class citizens.

The government is also denying students a more effective form of education. A more critical, objective and philosophical approach has shown to be more beneficial to students, morally and pedagogically. This is not something which can be supplied in religiously-run schools.

It would be to the detriment of children’s education and their status as equal citizens for the government to maintain the current patronage system.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at SkepticInk.com. Twitter @humanisticus

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