FIOS has emerged to engage in the current debate around the role of Christian schools in the Irish education system. This debate is taking place within the context of a number of recent governmental initiatives, which can be outlined as follows:
2011 The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism
Established by the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn T.D., in fulfilment of a Labour Party election manifesto promise, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism went so far as to recommend that faith schools could not give special prominence to the religious symbols of their own faiths on school property, that prayers be made more ‘inclusive’, and that the teaching of religion be restricted to the start or end of the school day.
In 2012, the Forum set out two key objectives. The first was the divestment of schools under denominational patronage. Church leaders were broadly supportive of this objective because the Church views parents as the primary educators of their children. The Catholic Church advocates not only freedom for religion but also freedom from religion and therefore supported the Forum’s objectives. It encouraged parents to engage in the surveys conducted by the Department of Education and Skills to assess parental demand for divestment of schools. Even in areas considered most likely to reflect parental demand for change response rates were as low as 16%; they never rose above 29%. Surprisingly, so too was the desire for change, partly because only web based responses were allowed. The Department did not allow school boards to assist in the process and discouraged public meetings.
The poor response to the surveys limited what Churches could do regarding the divestment of schools because for them the wishes of parents are paramount. Among parents who responded to the consultation demand for change was also very low, ranging from 24% to 32%. This left Church leaders in a quandary. It was difficult to support divestment when sufficient parental demand had not been demonstrated.
The second objective was to make schools remaining under denominational patronage inclusive for non-Christians and nonbelievers. This was problematic because reports, including from the Schools Inspectorate, testified that Catholic and Reformed schools were already scoring highly when it came to inclusion. When the Department issued its update on the implementation of the Forum objectives in 2014 it acknowledged that inclusion is the norm in Catholic schools. It felt that more could be done, however, to communicate what schools are already doing in this regard.
In relation to ‘stand alone’ schools (i.e. located in rural areas) suggestions included separating religious instruction from the rest of the curriculum, displaying ‘artifacts’ of non-Christian religions alongside crucifixes, and taking sacramental preparation out of the classroom. These issues are still under debate, as is the misleadingly labelled “baptismal rule” regarding admissions.
2015 The amendment of section 37 (1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998
On 10th December 2015, the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 was signed into law. It amended Section 37 (1) of the Employment Equality Act, 1998 and it came into effect from 1st January 2016.
Previous to this, section 37 (1) of the Employment Equality Act had provided that a school, which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes, or whose objectives include the provision of education in an environment which promotes certain religious values, shall not be taken to discriminate against a person if it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the school, or it takes action which is reasonable and necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the school.
The new Act has not abolished this exemption but it has constrained its application in the case of publicly funded schools through the insertion of Section 37 (1A-1C). For the exemption to apply to such schools, there must be no other ground on which the differential treatment would constitute discrimination. Furthermore, by reason of the nature of the institution’s activities or context in which the activities are being carried out, the religion or belief of the employee or prospective employee must constitute a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement having regard to the institution’s ethos. The differential treatment must be also objectively justified by the institution’s aim of preventing the undermining of the religious ethos of the institution and the means of achieving that aim must be appropriate and necessary.
Section 37 (1C) sets out a proportionality test, which governs the standard of what is considered justified in this regard. Any action to protect a school’s ethos will not be considered objectively justified, appropriate and necessary unless it is (a) rationally and strictly related to the school’s religious ethos, (b) in response to conduct of the employee or prospective employee undermining the religious ethos of the institution rather than a response to that employee’s, or prospective employee’s, gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, age, disability, race or membership of the Traveller community, and (c) proportionate to the conduct of the employee or prospective employee.
2016 The abolition of Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools
As the successor to Ruairi Quinn as Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan T.D. abolished Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools. The Minister deleted Rule 68 on 28th January 2016 just before the Government of 2011 – 2016 came to an end. The intent of Rule 68 was to protect the right of faith schools to permeate the day with the religious ethos of the school. The deletion of Rule 68 dealing with school ethos, shortly before Labour lost office, was an effort to salvage something from the Forum. Yet as the Department circular announcing the deletion noted, patrons’ authority to uphold the characteristic spirit of their schools remained intact by reason of section 15 of the Education Act, 1998 (a protection which is now, however, being undermined in the manner described at page 8).
2016 Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE)
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) conducted a consultation on its proposal for a curriculum in Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE), which took place from 3rd November 2015 to 31st March 2016. ERBE is a legacy of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism and led to the proposal of the NCCA to introduce ERBE as a discrete subject. The NCCA received 852 pages of submissions from 173 responding individuals and organisations. These overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. The consultation revealed a high level of support for Catholic education at the grassroots. State agencies supported the NCCA’s proposal. Those on the ground mostly opposed it: parents, teachers, principals, school managers and members of boards of management.
Respondents deemed ERBE unacceptable for several reasons. It was considered unrealistic given existing curriculum overload and time constraints. It was also considered unnecessary. The reasons given by the NCCA for its introduction included the development of self-respect, tolerance towards others, open mindedness and civic mindedness. These, it was pointed out, are already provided for in the current curriculum. Respondents also referred to research showing that tolerance and mutual respect are fostered more through commitment to one’s own faith than through assimilation of general knowledge about various beliefs. They also pointed out that age-appropriate knowledge in regard to various beliefs is already a part of denominational religious education.
Proponents of ERBE had stressed that it would complement existing denominational religious education. This was rejected on two grounds. Practically speaking teachers felt it was incredulous that time would be provided in primary schools for two religion subjects. Inevitably, denominational religious education would be squeezed out. More seriously, it was noted, the two approaches to religious education contradict each other and are incompatible. There is no neutral way to teach about religions. Given its own allegedly ‘neutral’ stance, ERBE would teach Catholic and Protestant pupils that no religion is true and that personal moral autonomy is an end in itself. Catholic and Protestant parents of children in denominational schools would find that they were being given at best an agnostic understanding of their own faith. Finally, few respondents were convinced by the NCCA’s assertion that ERBE would complement faith-based religious education. The issue, as they saw it, is not complementarity but compatibility. Why should faith-based schools have to teach religion in a way that contradicts their own characteristic spirit? By way of contrast the Humanist Association wrote, “Our aims and vision are very much the same as stated in the NCCA’s Consultation document ERBE.”
A number of respondents felt that the survey instrument was biased and chose to make written submissions instead. The ESRI, commissioned by the NCCA to analyse the findings, expressed grave concerns about the research methodology.
All of this led to a significant conclusion to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism when the NCCA presented the final report to Richard Bruton T.D., Minister for Education and Skills, in November 2016, on its proposal to introduce the new curriculum subject of ERBE to all primary schools in the State. The majority of written submissions the NCCA received provided a ringing endorsement of Catholic education. The majority of written submissions endorsed denominational education and rejected the NCCA proposal. Headlines, based on a leaked version of the report, attempted to blame the institutional Church for the demise of ERBE. This was unfair as most of the criticism came from people at the coalface: parents, teachers, principals and school managers.
The NCCA’s next strategy is to overhaul the curriculum in such a way that would allow for the integration of ERBE by other means. Yet the message from the submissions to the Consultation is that parents, teachers, managers and patrons need to be listened to.
2017 The proposed amendment or repeal of Section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal Status Act 2000
On 16th January 2017 Minister Bruton announced different proposals concerning the amendment of the law relating to school admissions policies, providing for the amendment or repeal of section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal Status Act 2000. Currently, this section provides that a school does not discriminate in relation to the admission of a person as a student to a school where the objective of the school is to provide education in an environment which promotes certain religious values and it admits persons of a particular religious denomination in preference to others or it refuses to admit as a student a person who is not of that denomination and, in the case of a refusal, it is proved that the refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school.
This has been inaccurately labelled as “the baptism barrier”. Its inaccuracy is underlined by the surveys recently sent by the Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA) to four hundred and fifty six schools in the Dublin area, which yielded three hundred and eighty four responses to its question on admission policy and baptism certificates. Those responses demonstrated that only seventeen schools refused enrolment on issues relating to baptism certificates, just 4.4% of the total. All of the seventeen schools were oversubscribed by 2.1 applicants per place. Just 1.2% of applicants for admission turned down by these Catholic schools in Dublin were on the basis of not being baptised. This means that children from Catholic families and from non-Catholic families were refused places in these schools. No Catholic school requires a baptism certificate as an absolute condition of enrolment and Catholic schools are inclusive and welcoming to children from all faith backgrounds and none.
In the Republic of Ireland, there are currently in or around one
hundred and seventy primary schools under Church of Ireland patronage, providing education to approximately fifteen thousand pupils. In rural areas, local Church of Ireland primary schools serve a wide geographical area. Thus, for example in County Kilkenny, there are only two such schools in the entire county to serve parents who wish their children to receive an education within a Church of Ireland ethos. In County Carlow, there are three; in County Laois there are five and, in neighbouring County Offaly, there are three such schools.
At post primary level, there are twenty-five schools under the patronage of the Church of Ireland, the Protestant Churches and the Society of Friends in the entire of the twenty six counties. These schools are concentrated in Dublin where ten of them are located. There are three to be found in County Cork and two each in Counties Louth and Wicklow. The other eight such schools are dispersed between eight different counties, which means that there are fourteen counties within the Republic of Ireland where there is no secondary school at all under Protestant patronage.
Consequently, at both primary and more especially at secondary level, Protestant parents who wish to have their children educated in a school of their own faith must frequently send their children to schools some distance away from where they live. At secondary level, the distance may often be so great as to require that the children attend school as boarder pupils.
Furthermore, it is the case that Protestant schools, at both primary and secondary level, provide a valuable focal point for an often scattered minority group. It allows social and cultural ties to form and grow. It allows families and pupils to meet others of their own faith background, when that may not be possible in their immediate neighbourhoods. Thus, in a particular way, Protestant schools are the life-blood of their communities.
2017 The new consultative process concerning the future divestment of Catholic primary schools
On 27th January 2017 Minister Bruton addressed the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) Annual Conference. He gave an endorsement for Community National Schools and said that the NCCA has recently developed a new religion and beliefs curriculum at the senior end of the Community National Schools and is in the process of reviewing this curriculum at the junior end.
Minister Bruton said the philosophy of the Community National School as a multidenominational school is based “… on each child better understanding and ultimately celebrating both their own and their friends’ religious and cultural identities. Religious identity is explicitly not left at the school gate, but used as a means of enriching the learning experience on the basis of mutual understanding and integration.”
The purpose of a Christian faith-based school is not simply to just learn about Christianity or other world religions, important though this is. The deeper and more essential purpose is that for the Christian pupil and for others who may so wish, the opportunity is provided to experience (i.e. to grow in an interior knowledge of) Christian faith, whether that be through prayer, worship, the sacraments, seeing the permanent presence of religious symbols, images or architecture, hearing sacred music or otherwise. As the Minister’s approach is based on learning about religion in a school but not about deepening the experience of one’s faith (which includes intellectual engagement and moral development) he then endorsed the approach towards religious education in Community National Schools by stating:
“In keeping with its multi-denominational ethos, the programme of faith and belief nurturing is based
on mutual understanding of different religions and belief systems, and of people who don’t subscribe
to any religion, based on a curriculum, known as “Goodness Me Goodness You”, developed in
accordance with best practice by the State’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
However, for religious groups who wish, preparation for specific life events or subjects - for example
First Communion or Confirmation for Catholics – can be provided during the school day. … I
personally believe that one model, which I know has operated by some Community National Schools
on the ground, which has merit is based on the principle that the entire class group is taught religion
and beliefs together throughout the whole year. However individual faith groups who wish are allowed
to withdraw from those classes, within limits (for example up to around 10 hours per year) to allow
them to prepare for specific rites of passage or learn about specific issues to do with their own faith
group during school time.”
This model being endorsed by the Minister sees religious education as being about all pupils being
taught about different religions and then having the right to withdraw for an amount of time (less than two school days per year in total) to be prepared for “specific events”. Again, the Minister’s own words are most telling in themselves: “This model has the merit of
responding to the needs of faith-based parents who wish their children to be able to prepare for specific events – for example Communion and Confirmation in the case of Catholic families – but also respects the best principles of inclusion and mutual understanding that are central to multidenominational education.” Clearly, the Minister’s statement considers a detached multifaith perspective more inclusive than a denominational perspective that is willing to engage in dialogue while being committed to its own religious convictions and outlook.
On the same date, the Government unveiled its new two-stage plan on future divestment. Education and Training Boards will work to identify areas where there is likely to be demand from families for diversity in schooling and, where such demand is demonstrated, a process will be set in train to realise this through divestment of at least one school. On this later stage, Minister Bruton said, “the existing landowner, in cooperation with the local school community, will decide what multi-denominational patron to transfer to. The transfer will be by way of a live school transfer, with existing staff remaining in place, where this is the wish of the parties involved. In most cases the new patron will lease the building from the landowner.”
2017 The new consultative process of the NCCA concerning ‘Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework’
The NCCA will shortly be announcing a consultation process in regard to the curriculum for pre-school children. This process will be undertaken on foot of a proposed framework that has recently been produced entitled Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. This framework is based entirely on a secular model and makes no provision for religious education in it. This has potential implications for a revised structure of the primary school curriculum.
2017 The NCCA Time and Structure Consultation (Revision of the Primary School Curriculum)
The NCCA is also proposing that there should be movement to an incremental stage model of curriculum, which would have time divided between curriculum areas and subjects deemed “core” and “discretionary”. The proposal would result in religious education no longer being considered part of the core curriculum for primary schools and time to be given to it would be flexible. It could also result in ERBE becoming compulsory as part of the State primary school curriculum in senior primary classes, despite the consultation process concerning ERBE having roundly rejected it. Submissions are currently being sought in regard to the new curriculum.
2017 NCCA and the Education Act, 1998
As already noted, the then Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan T.D., deleted Rule 68 in Circular (009/2016) in January 2016 shortly before the Labour Party left office. This circular included the following:
“In relation to providing religious instruction that accords with the patronage of a school of a particular
denomination or faith tradition the Minister considers that the matter can be informed by Section 15
(2) (b) of the Education Act of 1998 and the functions of the board of such a school in relation to
upholding the characteristic spirit of the school.”
Clearly, the Minister sought to soften the impact of the deletion of Rule 68 by relying upon section 15 (2) (b) of the Education Act, 1998 implying that the roles of boards of managements of schools in regard to protecting the characteristic spirit of schools would not be adversely affected.
On 14th February 2017, the NCCA launched the ERBE Report, which was purported to represent the views of those who engaged in its consultation process. As one of its two key findings, the NCCA communicated to the general public that the majority of respondents to the consultation process were in favour of the introduction of ERBE into the national curriculum. In fact, this had not been demonstrated to be the case. Furthermore, the NCCA suggested that there was a considerable groundswell in favour of the amendment of the Education Act, 1998 including section 15 (2) (b) of this Act. They went so far as to highlight this as the first key finding and recommendation of this report. There was, however, no basis in the report for doing so. This putative finding of the NCCA was widely reported in the national media on 14th February 2017 as follows: “Law may hamper course on religions in primary schools” (The Irish Examiner) and “Legal obstacles flagged over subject on world religions in primary schools” (The Irish Times). The law being referred to is section 15 (2) (b) of the Education Act, 1998 which protects the role of the patron and board of management in regard to characteristic spirit.
Irish schools are not state schools. They are state-funded schools. This is an important distinction. The Irish Constitution protects the role of parents as their children’s primary educators and supports them by providing state-funded schools under forms of patronage that accord with parents’ beliefs. More divestment is needed if only to permit schools that remain faith-based to be true to their ethos and to simultaneously facilitate more diverse provision, which responds to parental demands for non-faith based schooling. Ultimately, however, it is the State’s responsibility to vindicate the rights of parents of various faiths and none.
In contrast, groups that advocate radical reform with the ultimate goal of removing a faith-based ethos from all publicly funded schools favour a ‘one size fits all’ state education where Christian faith and ethos is removed entirely from them. Well connected and resourced, these lobby groups, some of which are state-funded, have been shown to be largely unrepresentative of people on the ground. Effectively, their proposals will result in the State displacing parents as their children’s primary educators. If their ultimate objective is realised, it will mean that all publicly funded schools will become secularist and places where the Christian experience of faith is lost to future generations of children in this country.
This is at the heart of the debate. There is a confusion between learning about religion, Christian or otherwise and the lived experience of faith. While welcoming all pupils, a Christian faith-based school facilitates, for those who wish it, an inner experience of God’s love in Christ and the transformation that flows from this love, by allowing the time, space and opportunity for pupils to grow in an interior knowledge of Jesus Christ. This knowledge comes from attunement to the Holy Spirit, which is the foundation and life of the whole school. This is the understanding of Christian primary and post-primary education which FIOS is seeking to articulate and to protect.
The Feast of the Annunciation
25 March 2017