Educating Ireland: Secular Reform Is Coming To State-Funded Schools

Last year’s Burning Issues 2 report found that the vast majority of LGBTs in Ireland want to see reform of Ireland’s religious-run school system, but with 93 percent of our primary schools under the patronage of Catholic bishops, there’s a tough battle ahead. Brian Finnegan reports from the frontline.

 

In the Burning Issues 2 report (produced by GCN’s publishers, the National LGBT Federation), which surveyed over 2,600 people last year to find the issues most important to Ireland’s LGBT community, a massive 96 percent of respondents said that the Irish education system should be reformed so that no child is excluded for their religion or non-religion. Research carried out in 2015 by Equate, an NGO lobbying for the secularisation of Irish schools, found that 84 percent of the general Irish population agreed with this general statement, showing that support for change to the patronage model of Irish schools is very high amongst the general public, and almost universally backed by the LGBT community. Currently in Ireland 96 percent of state-funded primary schools are run by religious organisations, and of that 93 percent are Catholic.

For Dad of two, Donal Traynor, who along with his husband, Joseph Bowlby identifies as atheist, the experience of the Irish schooling system has been frustrating at best. They adopted their two children while living in the UK in 2011, and the boys were sent Church of England school, where systems were put in place for students who did not identify as Protestant.

“On Wednesdays the local vicar would come in to hold the morning assembly, so instead of attending assembly, the boys were sent to an IT class with 60 or 70 other kids. There was no other religion taught during school hours.”

 

Excluded

In 2014, the family moved home to Dungarvan in Co. Waterford and both children were enrolled in a local school.

“When our boys started school we asked the principal if they could be excused from religion class, which is a half an hour every day, and he said that wasn’t possible. They are excluded from taking part, but they have to remain in the classroom. In this respect, they’re made feel they are not part of the school, that it’s a Catholic school and they’re add-ons, that their family’s beliefs don’t matter.”

Traynor’s frustration is compounded by his lack of choice. “Dungarvan is not a tiny place, there are 10,000 people here and seven primary schools within five miles of the town, but they’re all under the patronage of the bishop,” he says. “The Catholic Church regards myself and my husband, my children’s parents, as intrinsically disordered. I really struggle with that.”

 

Baptismal Barrier

If instead of going to Dungarvan, Traynor and his family had moved to Dublin or any other urban centre in Ireland, he and his husband would have found themselves most likely being forced to have their children baptised to get them into a school. In oversubscribed areas, the current baptismal barrier, which permits Catholic-run schools to discriminate against non-Catholics in their admissions policies, holds sway.

Michael Barron speaking in front of an equate banner about Irish schools and secular reform

According to Michael Barron, Executive Director of Equate: “Parents in urban areas aren’t getting places for their children in schools, and it’s created this culture where they feel they have to baptise their children to get them into school.

“The Catholic Association of Priests in Dublin commissioned research a number of years ago and they found that between 2007 and 2030 mass attendance in Dublin will halve, but that baptisms will increase over that time. They themselves said that this was because of parents have to baptise their children to get them into schools.”

 

Reform Is Coming

Research carried out by Equate earlier this year found that almost three quarters of Irish parents believe the law should be changed so that baptism can no longer be a requirement for school admission in state-funded schools. In January, Minister for Education, Richard Bruton announced plans to remove the baptisimal barrier, outlining four possible approaches.

They include: A “catchment area” approach which would prohibit religious schools from giving preference to children of their own religion who live outside the catchment area ahead of non-religious children who live close by; a ‘nearest school rule’, allowing religious schools to give preference to a religious child only where it is that child’s nearest school of that religion; a quota system, which would allow a religious school set aside a certain number of places for children of its own religion; and a complete ban on religious schools using religion as a factor in admissions.

While there are significant constitutional barriers to reform in the area of school patronage, according to Dr. Conor O’Mahony, Senior Lecture in Law in UCC, a complete removal of the baptismal barrier could be easily addressed under the law. “You’re not taking the schools away from the churches,” he says. “You’re simply saying that if you’re going to take public money from the state, then that money will come with certain conditions attached, and one of those conditions is that when you are operating your admissions policy you can’t have regard to the religion of the child.

“There would be no constitutional barrier to change in this area because the courts have held that the state is entitled to attach conditions to the provision of public funds to schools and there’s no automatic entitlement of denominational schools to receive public funding. Really, it’s an area where the Oireachtas has discretion.”

 

 

Knock-On Effect

For Barron, a complete removal of the barrier is the only option. “In our research, one in four parents said that they wouldn’t have baptised their children if they didn’t have to do it to get them into school. Removing the baptism barrier is a no-brainer for most people, but the knock-on effects could be potentially huge for the Catholic Church. And this is where the sticking point really is.”

One of those knock-on effects would be on the curriculum. At a conservative estimate religion currently takes up 91 hours of the school year on Catholic denominational schools, which is more than history, geography or PE, or any subject other than English, Irish and Maths. “That increases significantly in the lead up to First Holy Communion or Confirmation,” says Barron.

“Parents and children are opting out of learning it, which is their constitutional right, but the children are usually put in the corner with a history or a geography book. Even worse, they’re often put sitting in the corridor outside the classroom. They’re being isolated and they’re losing out on 91 hours a year of learning.”

Gay parent Donal Traynor believes the current curriculum enforces “indoctrination by osmosis” on children who are not from Catholic families. “Our boys know the Hail Mary in Irish and English,” he says. “Our older boy is a fan of The Big Bang Theory and from watching it he got to know the very basics of the big bang theory. When he was in fourth class, his teacher told him that this was wrong, and insisted that God created the world.

 

Carol Service

“Last Christmas he came home from school and said, ‘We had a really busy day, we were at the carol service at the crib’. They had been marched crocodile-style down to the church and they had to sit, kneel and stand do what everyone else did for mass. When I asked him why he had to go, he said there was no one to mind him.”

Burning Issues 2 found that 14 percent of LGBT people in Ireland believe that the secularisation
of schools is necessary in achieving equality for LGBT parents, but what of LGBT young people attending Irish schools? Over three quarters of the respondents said they felt schools in Ireland today are not safe places or fully inclusive of LGBT students.

According to Barron, who became the Director of Equate after 11 years at the helm of the LGBT Youth organisation, BeLonG To: “In terms of the young people I’ve worked with over the years, I’ve certainly seen how religion has been used to isolate and stigmatise, and nowhere more so than in school, which by its very nature is a controlled system.

 

Sexual Identity Education

“How sexual identity is taught in schools is coloured by the religious ethos of the school. There are some great Catholic schools doing great work on LGBT issues, but there’s a lot that aren’t. As long as we have a Catholic Church that maintains gay people are intrinsically disordered, it’s going to be an issue around how sexual health and sexual intimacy are taught.”

There are also systemic issues around bullying. “Years after the guidelines were put in place by the department to protect LGBT young people in schools, young people were still telling us at BeLonG To that they weren’t being implemented, and that the Catholic ethos of the schools was the biggest barrier,” says Barron.

“We did great teacher training in places like Donegal, and the teachers would say they really enjoyed the training but they weren’t going to be able to implement it in their school. No matter how vociferously we would make the point that they were mandatory guidelines, they were telling us that the involvement of the local church in the school meant that they weren’t going to be able to use them.

“In a system where one religion is preferenced over another, and where that religion has some pretty derogatory things to say about LGBT identity, it stands to reason that it’s causing damage. The state essentially supports that by funding it, and that’s a real human rights issue.”

 

Inclusive Education

Equate has been supporting the National Council for Curriculum Development to create a new curriculum called Education About Religion and Ethics. “The intention of that is to provide a new way of teaching religion, which is about all world religions, so children would learn about all religions and cultures, which is really important for a modern, pluralist, multi-cultural society,” says Barron.
Equate is also pushing for the baptismal barrier to be removed for school admissions by September 2018, and if that happens it will be one major step on a road away from a school system that heavily promotes one world view, where the beliefs and practices of the population is increasingly out of line with that world view. However, according to Dr Conor O’Mahony the complete secularisation of Irish schools is a long game.

“It would be exceedingly difficult for the government to pass legislation that would force
the churches to hand over schools to the state,” he says. “The problem is that in Article 44 of the Constitution there’s specific protection around religious organisations maintaining institutions for educational purposes and for holding property. The current arrangement by which the vast amount of primary schools are owned and managed by the Catholic Church, and some by the Protestant Church, creates a situation where the divestment process depends entirely on the cooperation of those bodies.”
Barron believes there’s a difficult societal shift that needs to happen too.

 

Steeped In History

“We’re dealing with layers and layers of history and culture, and it runs incredibly deep,” he says. “We can see it now in people’s reaction to the mother and baby homes scandal, that beneath all of those stories there’s hundreds of years of ‘this is how we’ve always done things’, hundreds of years of people feeling connected to their local parish. That culture needs to shift in a major, fundamental way.

“The challenge for Equate and others is to work on this so that nobody is losing community, and that changes that happen in the education system or within the local school aren’t seismic in a way
that would be intimidating and off-putting.

The actual change isn’t that dramatic, it’s more the perception of the change.”

With such fundamental community issues in the mix, it’s likely that politicians, eager to hold on to local favour, won’t be heavily pushing the secularisation agenda.

Barron, however, is hopeful. “My perception is that there is more political will to change than is obvious,” he says. “From my direct meetings and exchanges with politicians, I would say there is a broad agreement that something has to give, that the present system isn’t fit for purpose anymore.”
Meanwhile, Donal Traynor’s older son is in sixth class in Dungarvan, where the majority of his classmates will be making their confirmation this year.

“His teacher is telling us that for three weeks before the confirmation that’s all it will be,” he says. “By all means let religious groups use the school for extra-curricular education in their religions, for education around making their communion or being confirmed, but not during school hours.

“I’m a taxpayer and I feel I’m paying for my kids to feel left out.”

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