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Opinion: 'Religious instruction and worship should take place outside core school hours'

This proposal seeks to find a workable compromise between different belief groups at minimum cost, writes David Graham.

David Graham Education Equality

DISCRIMINATION BEGINS WITH a refusal to acknowledge the existence of the ‘other’.

As the long-running debate over the religious control of our national schools continues, Education Equality has noted that those who are the keenest to proclaim the ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ of our schools are also the most reluctant to acknowledge the growing number of non-Christian families.

A changing Ireland

Last year’s marriage statistics, which have just been released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), are further evidence of a changing Ireland. This is a country where a quiet revolution has taken place in the last 30 years with respect to religious belief and practice, and the role of religion in society.

Of the available figures released by the CSO since 1980, there has only been one year when the proportion of Catholic marriage ceremonies has not fallen. Since 2015, over one in three marriages in the State has been celebrated in a non-religious ceremony.

Last year, civil and humanist marriage ceremonies reached a new high of 37%, while Catholic ceremonies fell yet again to 50.9%. If the long-term trend continues, more couples will choose non-religious marriage ceremonies than Catholic ceremonies within the next few years. Soon after that, non-religious marriages are likely to outnumber all religious marriages combined.

A tangible indicator

These statistics matter in the schools debate for a number of reasons. First, the marriage figures relate directly to the demographic with the greatest stake in our education system.

As most babies in Ireland are still born within marriage, the wedding ceremonies that couples choose give us a good sense of the beliefs of today’s parents and allow us to draw reasonable inferences about how they want to raise their children.

Second, unlike the Census, the marriage figures are a tangible indicator of religious practice. Third, as the CSO produces a marriage report every year, the figures are always right up-to-date.

In short, while by no means a perfect indicator, the annual marriage statistics give us the best quantitative data we have about the prevalence of religious belief and practice among young Irish families.

Catholic vs non-religious marriages in Ireland 1980-2017

96% of schools under private religious patrons

Notwithstanding this profound societal change of recent years, approximately 96% of our publicly-funded national schools remain under the control of private religious patrons. About 90% are run by the Catholic Church. Many of these schools indoctrinate all of their pupils throughout the school day, with or without their parents’ consent.

It is effectively impossible to ‘opt out’ of the religious-integrated curriculum, essentially a form of subliminal indoctrination.

Meanwhile, opt-out arrangements for the daily 30-minute periods of formal religious instruction and worship – overt indoctrination – are often inadequate at best, with ‘opted-out’ children typically sitting at the back of the class, isolated and excluded while absorbing the religious instruction regardless.

Our schools are out of touch with the beliefs and needs of a growing number of families in the diverse local communities they serve. These families do not want their children to be indoctrinated at school. The religious doctrine being taught there has no relevance to them, and is regarded by many parents as an unwelcome imposition on their family life, not to mention directly contrary to their own conscience.

Yearning for change

They are yearning for change. They don’t want a history lesson about our education system’s origins in pre-Famine Ireland, or hand-wringing from policymakers about the difficult legacy of Church land ownership.

They are simply calling on the State to take action that vindicates their freedom of conscience and upholds their Constitutional rights. And non-religious families are joined in these calls by many minority-religion families who have the same human rights and face the same discrimination. How are Hindu or Muslim parents to raise their child in their beliefs if the local school treats the child as Catholic?

As a first step on the road to equality we need equal access to local schools for local children, irrespective of their religious status. Sadly, even this modest proposal is facing fierce opposition from vested interests. However, equality is a threat only to those who fear the loss of privilege.

As a second step, we need to fundamentally examine whether our denominational schools, as currently run, are fit for purpose in a changing society – and whether the narrative of ‘school choice’ is an appropriate response to diversity. The status quo is not sustainable, but neither is a response that would seek to segregate 5-year-olds along religious lines. We don’t have the money, the land or the need to build a parallel school system for non-Christians.

A focus on parental consent

Instead, achieving true equality in our schools will require a careful balancing of competing rights and a clear focus on parental consent.

In addition to calling for equal school access, Education Equality proposes that religious instruction and worship should take place at the end of the school day, outside core school hours, so that parents can effectively choose whether or not their children receive instruction in a particular religion. This proposal seeks to find a workable compromise between different belief groups at minimum cost.

In the meantime, we have a choice. We can face up to the need for change, or we can continue to ignore the existence, and the rights, of the ‘other’.

David Graham is a father of two and Communications Officer with Education Equality.

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David Graham  / Education Equality

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