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a fine balance

'She's coming home singing Ave Maria': Religion from the back of the classroom

Ireland’s non-religious parents face some tough choices about how their children participate.

AS 96% OF Irish primary schools are religious-run, enrolment policies are coming under more and more scrutiny each September. In this three-day special series, explores the role religion plays in our classrooms and what’s being done in the sector.’

“He has to sit in the classroom because he can’t be supervised elsewhere,” says Peter Hinchliffe, describing what happens to his son as his teacher takes his class for religion education.

“We’ve asked for him to go and join in with the junior infants and maybe help out with them,” he tells 

But they won’t do that. He’s obviously not allowed to do his homework during that session. He’s not allowed to do anything which might be deemed more entertaining than the lessons itself.

Hinchliffe is a member of Atheist Ireland and his son, also Peter, attends a Catholic national school in Kerry.

In Ireland, the Equal Status Act allows schools to favour children that share their own ethos in the enrolment process.

The recently announced amended Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016 will mean that there will be a legal requirement for these schools to take in students from all backgrounds (religious or not) – legislating for something that is fairly commonplace already.

In reality, the vast majority of schools (80%) are undersubscribed but problems arise in some areas. Getting a school place can be difficult in some areas, for starters, and then if they do enrol, parents have to make decisions about what is generally a daily 30-minute mandated religion class.

peter hinchliffe Michael Sheils McNamee / Peter Hinchliffe Michael Sheils McNamee / /

Non-religious parents who send their children to a Catholic school have a delicate task on their hands.

How do you balance not teaching your child to be of a particular faith, while at the same time making sure they don’t end up being left out?

Reading a book  

The worry for many non-religious parents is that their children – if they were to participate – would receive faith formation (rather than religious) education.

“At the moment if he is having an RE lesson he sits and reads a book in the classroom because they don’t separate faith formation from religious education,” says Hinchliffe, whose son, also Peter, is entering Sixth Class at his national school in Kerry.

We’ve said if it’s just teaching about, then please we want to join in. But if it’s teaching faith as fact or faith as a virtue over non-faith, then to be honest it’s just too complex and we just say to sit out of RE.

A religious school’s entitlement to focus on faith formation is protected by the constitution.

Under Article 4, a school is given the right to “manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes”.

Besides the mandated 30 minutes of religious instruction a day, faith formation is also present in prayers (which can take place at the start, end and middle of the day), additional time spent preparing for Confirmation and often in the way that non-religious lessons are conducted.

“He’s sort of getting the worst of both worlds,” Hinchliffe says, “because he’s still taking in what’s being said but he’s not participating in the group, which is quite a strange situation.”

‘She’s coming home singing Ave Maria’ 

“You can sense the anxiety in Grace in that she feels that she’s different,” says Alan Egan, whose five-year-old daughter attends a Catholic national school in Dublin.

[The teacher] says we don’t do a lot of religion in the class. But at the same time she’s coming home singing Ave Maria.

shutterstock_451788796 Shutterstock / PongMoji Franz Schubert's Ave Maria is a song written in praise of Mary, mother of Christ Shutterstock / PongMoji / PongMoji

Schools do not set out to ignore the wishes of parents around religious education and their children but practicalities can get in the way.

Egan says the school was “very reasonable” about her sitting out of class but that due to lack of supervision she would have to remain in the lesson.

“We’ve tried to expose her to different kinds of stories about people with different religions,” he says.

She was saying to me ‘I hate atheists’. I was kind of surprised and said, ‘Well you know your daddy’s an atheist and your mummy’s an atheist!’ But you could just see she was struggling with the whole thing.

‘She was learning water conservation through religion’

Tina Hawkins has taken a different approach to how her non-religious child participates in the school day.

Rather than remove her daughter from the religious parts of the day, she allows her to take part, and:

[The] understanding is that the teacher will explain that this is what some people believe but that it isn’t what everybody believes.

Hawkins explains that the challenge for six-year-old Orla of separating religion out from the rest of the day’s lessons can be a tough one.

“The school is so entwined in the religious ethos everything is taught through religion, almost,” she says.

20160525_131700 Tina Hawkin's daughter Orla

“She even learnt about water conservation and recycling through a religion book as part of her homework.

From this she taught the reason you conserve water and the reason you recycle is that we’re looking after the earth for God, because God tells us.
And I was thinking, ‘Oh no! We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. Because you’re a smart girl and this is what you’re supposed to do for your own future’.

“She’s only six so it can be quite hard. She comes home saying she’s doing this because of God or the baby Jesus and she loves her teacher. Because when they’re that age the teacher can’t do anything wrong,” she goes on.

So it’s hard to explain to her that it’s not that your teacher is wrong, but that there are different ways of thinking.

‘A lot of it’s just rhyming off’ 

Vincent McDarby, a senior pediatric psychologist at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, explains that “a lot of [this] is just rhyming off”.

“They’re not invested from that point of view. It becomes a meaningless chant.

From a religious point of view they’re not contemplating it. They’re not sitting down questioning the meaning of it, it’s like a role practice that they do. It’s just rote learning.

Even if the religious lessons may not form deep roots, McDarby explains that the role a teacher has in a child’s life at that stage shouldn’t be underestimated. 

“They haven’t got the experience to question it,” he says, “we look for evidence whereas they haven’t been exposed to that.”

They are learning about the world, they have this flexible view of the world. Things that we have been exposed to – they don’t know so they are drawing information from every side.

‘No alternatives available’ 

A key thing to remember is that what a non-religious child does in a religion class changes from school to school.

To get a reading of what is in place, wrote to over 300 schools to get an idea of their policies.

What emerged in the responses is that the separation of children from their peers is not just difficult for the child and its parents but often for the schools as well.

“There are no alternatives available as this is a primary school where each class teacher gives religious instruction to his/her own class,” says Ben Dorney, the principal of Scoil Mhuire Marino.

school website Scoil Mhuire Marino Scoil Mhuire Marino's homepage Scoil Mhuire Marino

Rather the school consults with the parent of the children opting out (there are currently four) about what they would rather they do while the rest of the class is doing religion.

Pat Gately, principal of Mercy School in Wexford explains:

“Depending on parental choice, the children in question would either do other class activities during religion classes in their own room, under the instruction of the class teacher, or in a small number of cases they would go to another class for the duration.”

Around 12% of the schools 350 pupils have nominated to opt out of religious classes.

Donal O’Ciaran from Bunscoil Rinn an Chabhlaigh notes a similar problem with low numbers not taking part in faith formation – with the principal only recalling five students in his 19 years in the position.

What many of the schools were keen to emphasise in their responses was that while they may have been run under a Catholic ethos, they were keen to include children of different faiths throughout the school day.

“We have had parents of children with other faiths request that they be involved some way in First Communion and Confirmation,” explains Sr Maria Hyland from Loreto Grange Road in south Dublin.

When this happens, Hyland says, children of other faiths who are participating are often treated as guests of honour.

‘I thought it would be very confusing for her’ 

Responding to a query for this article, the Department of Education stated that a child’s right not to participate in religious education classes is enshrined in the Constitution – but that it does not have specific guidelines for what should be offered for children not taking part.

And it does seem like some headway has been made.

The new Admissions to School Bill - published last month – has moved to make primary schools include details of exactly what happens to students who don’t take part in religious classes in their admissions policies. And last year the Catholic Schools Partnership published a guidance document on how best to include all students.

csp Catholic Schools Partnership The front page of the Catholic Schools Partnership document Catholic Schools Partnership

Tina Hawkins expresses some surprise when it comes to how well her daughter has dealt with conflicted messages.

“She is actually doing a lot better than I thought,” she says.

“I thought this would be very confusing for her, and initially I think it was because she was saying, ‘well my teacher told me this’. Now I think she actually sees there’s a difference.

They are very adaptable at that age; it’s just a shame that she needs to be.

Pasted image at 2016_07_28 01_11 PM

Read: Religious education in schools: Two sets of rights in conflict

Also: Ireland’s push for education equality: 8 schools opened in 3 years

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