Ireland’s Debate About "Faith" Schools is One We Should Be Having

It used to be said of Cold War Poland that it was a Communist country without Communists. Today it would only be a slight exaggeration to say something similar of the Republic of Ireland: it is a Catholic county without Catholics.

Whatever people’s preconceptions about the Old Country, Ireland is a nation transformed. That, ahead of this year’s general election, there is currently a debate surrounding the nature of the country’s many “faith” schools is yet further demonstration of this.

Whereas weekly attendance at Mass once stood at some 90% by 2008 it had fallen to 35%; recently an Irish Sunday Times Behaviour and Attitudes poll claimed that, while older, more traditional voters still regularly went to church, among younger (18-34) demographics church attendance was only 14%. Whereas in the 1970s over 80% believed that the Catholic Church was the one true church, that figure stands at 13% today; 84% believe that clergy should be allowed to marry.

The moral authority of the church, which was virtually part of the state in the days of Eamon De Valera Ireland’s founding politician, has been broken. Not just by scandal: economic growth - that famed Celtic tiger - is another huge factor, membership of the European Union and the more diverse country immigration has created - by way of Freedom of Movement within the EU block but also those who once travelled abroad returning both to a changed country and to change the country. Ireland is now a nation which prides itself on its social democratic belief in equality, as demonstrated by its landslide - and historic - vote for Equal Marriage last year. All but one county voted heavily in favour.

Historically Ireland’s Catholicism was always tenuous and recent. Benefiting from three humane presidents who have guided the country, Ireland is now an good example of the cultural and social impact of a global world.

For some in the Catholic Church it is as if the modern world had never happened

Nearly 90% of Irish schools are church “faith” schools.  Rule 68 (National Schools Handbook) states that religious education should be the central part of the school day. Yet 84% believe that the education system should be reformed so that no child should be excluded on the basis of religion; 64% would prefer to send their children to a non-faith school if they had they choice; 67% believe that patronage in schools should be a responsibility of government (not the church).

As Taoiseach Enda Kenny limbers up towards re-election, education is clearly going to become a campaign issue. There is a need to bring Ireland’s education structures into the 21st, secular century and end the stranglehold the church. Equate, the campaign group, says that - at the very least - faith education should be moved to the perimeters of the school day, discrimination should be outlawed in schools admission policies and children should have the right to opt out of religious instruction if they chose. The church still has not got the message as Bishops’ Council for Education warned Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan not to interfere in schools’ ethea. For some in the Catholic Church it is as if the modern world had never happened. Yes, removing Rule 68 is an attack on the rights of faith-based schools. It is a campaign in favour of the rights of every child whatever their religious or cultural backgrounds.

Now there is the real possibility that Ireland might reform its education system so that it operates in the interests of all its children. There is a debate. It is not insignificant. If successful it will be one more step towards democratic modernity. Yet a few hundred miles away, over the Irish Sea, the silence on "faith" schools is vociferous.

where is the mainstream political figure advocating a sensible, non-discriminatory, non-divisive approach to education?

Thanks to the UK government’s free schools agenda “faith” schools now account for one-third of new state-funded schools. The British Humanist Association has published a report which states that many Sikh, Muslim and Hindu schools have no “white British” pupils. It cannot be right that these schools are allowed to maintain their own admission policies which are effectively discriminatory and often at odds with local needs and priorities. Whether it is open or by the back door, can a country, in which secularism is mainstream, allow the state to fund schools that divide on the basis of religion?

The issue goes beyond admission to what is taught under the state’s jurisdiction. Because they operate outside of LEA controls they are allowed to ensure that teachings conform to religious doctrine rather than critical thinking or in the interests of all-round education. If open, critical enquiry does not have a place in education, where does it have a role? "Faith" schools are able to operate their own staff employment policies but also their own religious education programmes, enabling them to lean their teaching towards particular doctrines. Strangely religious education is not supervised by Ofsted but rather by school governors. There is a massive oversight. In PSHE (a non-curriculum subject), issues such as gender relations, abortion, homophobia can be taught in ways that are non evidence-based, and violate basic presumptions of equality and human rights. We are permitting not a tiered education system but one in which some are restrictively isolated. It goes against a more open trend where humanism is increasingly taught as part of religious education. It is state-sponsored segregation.

Surely it is not radical to say that this is an agenda which needs to be challenged, or at least debated? Many organisations have taken on the government’s agenda - sometime successfully, sometimes less so. It is a fight which goes to the heart of our education system and beyond. But where is the mainstream political figure advocating a sensible, non-discriminatory, non-divisive approach to education?

Two countries. The issues are very different. However Ireland is having a constructive debate about the role of equality and pluralism in its state-maintained education. The UK, despite so much evidence, is heading silently in a different and more dangerous direction.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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