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Opinion 'Parents need to raise their voices in the divestment debate'

Single-faith religious instruction and all sacramental preparation needs to be parish-based and conducted outside of school hours, writes Peter Gunning.

ACCORDING TO THE 2016 Census, 78% of the population identify as being Catholic. In practice however the church estimates fewer than 18% attend mass regularly.

It would appear that “I say therefore I am” is the preferred badge of religious identity for the majority of those who ticked the Catholic box on the most recent census form. As the numbers who actually practise their religion continue to dwindle, most continue to pay mere lip service.

Nowhere is this lip service more clearly evidenced than in our 3,300 primary schools, 96% of which remain under Catholic patronage.

Inequity and absurdity

The majority of children come from either non-practising or non-Catholic families and yet the Catholic church still claims ownership of our schools and insists that its ethos must prevail with religion taught in every class for two and half hours each week. And while both the inequity and the absurdity of this situation is glaringly obvious, little is being said and less in being done.

As a primary school principal for nearly twenty years when enrolling children I would ask parents why they chose our school. Reasons offered included the lack of co-educational places in the local town, our reputation for inclusion and our expertise in the area of working with children with autism and other special educational needs.

However, not once in those twenty years did any parent cite the fact that we were a Catholic school.

In fact in all my dealings with parents the nearest we ever came to a theological controversy was when I suggested that the boys might wear uniforms for First Holy Communion instead of looking like dwarfed grandads in their assorted three piece suits and dicky bows.

An inherited tradition

On another occasion I was questioned by a deputation of parents from a Confirmation class as to why our neighbouring school always got the front pews in the church while our children were given seats at the back. As Fr Jack might suggest, neither situation would be “an ecumenical matter”.

In short, in my experience, parents seemed far more concerned with matters academic, behavioural and social rather than spiritual. The fact that the school was under Catholic patronage had more to with an inherited tradition rather than a meeting of current religious need.

When the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism in Primary Education was established in 2011 it was expected that divesting of patronage would follow as a matter of course. In its 2014 report the Forum’s authors expressed disappointment in the slow if not negligible progress on divestment.

In a recent article for Senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin suggested convening the Citizen’s Assembly as well as a call for constitutional change. Such measures would be certainly laudable and may ultimately lead to a positive outcome.

In the meantime children will continue to be enrolled in schools which fail to reflect the society in which they live. Our children have an entitlement to have all their learning needs met including values, morality and ethical education.

ERB and Ethics

Since the first report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, The National Committee for Curriculum and Assessment has been working on a new subject, Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERB and Ethics).

This subject will form part of the new primary school curriculum due to be introduced over the next four to five years. The NCCA in collaboration with The Education Training Board, the body who provide patronage for the new community primary schools have already introduced  the excellent “Goodness Me Goodness You” an inclusive values and ethical education programme.

It is time that all children, not just those enrolled in Educate Together and community multi-denominational schools benefit from these programmes. All schools, including single-faith schools, are now in reality multi-denominational as they welcome children from all faiths and none.

Parents need to raise their voices in the divestment debate. Church leaders too need to be proactive in predicting the recommendations of any convention of the Citizens’ Assembly and government plans to legislate for church state separation in our schools. Single-faith religious instruction and all sacramental preparation needs to be parish-based and conducted outside of school hours.

Teaching well

Since the Forum was established in 2011 a whole generation of children has moved through a  primary school system which remains for the most part denominational. Next September, a new generation will begin their primary school journey. By the time these children graduate to post-primary in 2025 will the divestment debate still be ongoing?

The writing has been on the wall for years. It is time for the grown-ups to read it. Let’s teach our children well. All of them.

Peter Gunning is a retired school principal and regular contributor to

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