Primary Focus

With the current system of primary school patronage failing to reflect a changing Irish society, Sean Finnan examines the social issues surrounding this.One hundred and eighty one years ago, a national school system was established in Ireland that intended to educate all children in Ireland, irrespective of faith in the same classroom. Roll on 2012 where over eighty nine per cent of national schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church. Figures from last year’s census show a forty five per cent increase in Irish people identifying themselves as belonging to no organized religion. With increased immigration also comes a greater heterogeneity in beliefs, also reflected in the census.“I think Irish society is moving slowly from a very traditional catholic form of education to a more liberal nuanced multi denominational form of education” says Prof Tom Inglis of UCD’s Dept. of Sociology. We’re in the middle of this transformation and I think that there is an acceptance and willingness, particularly by Archbishop Martin but also by other figures in the Catholic Church to exceed to this process. The number of schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church does not represent the religious beliefs and values of the population.” Minister of Education Ruairi Quinn has begun to challenge this after announcing a survey of school patronage last June. Divesting the Catholic Church of some of its primary schools could begin as early as next year.“If parents want their children educated in the catholic faith and the catholic ethos in which they learn catholic teachings and practice that’s fine”, says Prof. Inglis. The question is to what extent should the state fund these. I think the problem is that we are in a stage of transition and a lot of parents don’t have any option but to send their child to a catholic school. What is not certain is to what extent do they seem passionate or animated about this or whether they are quite willing to go along with the tradition they were brought up in themselves.”This is something that the survey wishes bring to light. Although there is a recognized desire for a changing system, the strength of the desire is difficult to calculate. Parents in forty-four areas around the country will be asked to name their preferred patron for the local school in the online survey, hopefully bringing the facts necessary to move this debate forward, to the fore.There is an average of ten per cent non-Catholics in every county in Ireland with a much higher percentage in Dublin and the surrounding area. For parents not of the Catholic faith, the choices of education for their children are extremely limiting. The choice can be as stark as having your children taught through an ethos contrary to yours or travelling miles to a school more suitable to your understanding. Often, the first is chosen. Parents may request their child to not take part in religious studies but the awkwardness for children being different in the classroom can be socially isolating.The University Observer spoke to Jane Donnelly, education officer of Atheist Ireland on the issue. “Well the current system of patronage doesn’t take into account those parents that want secular non denominative education for their children. The patronage system is literally based on the majority in a particular area... In essence the patronage system is like a private system. The state provides for the education as opposed to providing the education. In atheist Ireland we are looking for secular non denominational state schools and the patronage system doesn’t offer us that as they are essentially private schools.”In a recent survey conducted by MacGael and Rhatigans entitled “The Challenge of Indifference” one of the questions asked was how important it was for children to be brought up with the same religious views as their parents. Sixty five percent thought it important, a decline of seventeen per cent, twenty years previously. It could easily be supposed that a thirty five per cent minority doesn’t regard their religion as being intrinsic to their child’s upbringing. For the first time a sizable minority’s beliefs are in clear conflict with the educators of their children.“We need to look at this as a rights based issue”, continued Mrs. Donnelly. “Do parents or children have rights or is it only the majority. Do all parents have rights to freedom of conscious, equality before the law, freedom from discrimination and do children have their rights? And we do have those rights because they’re human rights. We have the right to ensure that our children are brought up according to our philosophical constituents and that is what we are looking for, we are looking for human rights.”One of the initiatives forwarded by the recent forum on Patronage and Pluralism in Ireland, is of a Community National School. Instead of the patronage of this type of school being in private ownership, the Minister for Education and Skills will act as its patron. These schools will be multi-denominational and also cater for parents who don’t wish for their child to be given a religious education. One of the problems outlined in the document is the challenge in catering for such a diverse number of faiths. Despite these difficulties, the report recommends that a pilot of these schools should continue as the exploration of alternative patronage systems continue.Speaking about the forum on Patronage and Pluralism in National Schools, Mrs. Donnelly stated “the Minister of Education… recognized that all parents must have their human rights and that the U.N and the Council of Europe are putting pressure on the State to give all parents (this). He recognized that the UN are telling the State to open non-denominational schools throughout the state. The UN recognize that secular parents are denied their human rights such as freedom of conscious, equality before the law and freedom from discrimination. It’s the States’ responsibility; the Dail has ratified the European Convention on the right of the child. The State has said that it will guarantee all within its territory those rights. Now how it is going to guarantee the rights of minorities is what the forum of patronage and pluralism is discussing at the moment.”The Constitution of Ireland recognizes the family as the primary educator of the child. It also states in Article 42.4 that “The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavor to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative, and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities or institutions with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.” The State, however, provides as little as 3 per cent of primary education, despite them being termed as “national”. The public good therefore, needs to be realistically recognized not only by the State but also by the religious organizations that run the schools.For religious organizations to alter the ownership structure of national schools and embrace a more pluralistic or even more radical, a secular national school system would put a serious strain on the very fabric of these groups. A significant number of hours are spent in both second-class and fifth class on preparing for religious sacraments. Enrolment to the Catholic Church is dependent on the Primary School system. Children are engaged in ceremonies and rituals that they know little about. Children should of course be educated about religion, as at its core are a basic manner of ethics. However, using the primary school system on young minds is a process of faith formation, rather than education. Seldom are children taught about the church but told about it.Even if the class is not specifically preparing for Communion or Confirmation, then they are having daily choir practice for the ceremony during school hours etc. This along with half an hour to an hour of religious studies per day is directly impacting on educational standards in Ireland. It’s no surprise only about 5 per cent of Irish third level students are proficient in a foreign language, the second worst rate in Europe. Not only does this impact on graduate employment opportunities, the barrier to gain hand access to a different society is a loss of a valuable educational opportunity.“I don’t think that many parents are very animated about this issue. Ok there’s a move towards multi-denominational education but there isn’t any clamouring of parents around the country saying this is outrageous”, says Prof Inglis. “There isn’t any social movement or opposition. It’s a bit to my mind like sex education. Parents are often quite happy to let someone else do the sex education rather that they do it themselves. They find it awkward. They’d rather have a teacher do it in school but I think it also comes to the spiritual and moral formation of children that parents are often quite happy to have it included in the curriculum on the basis that it’s good to learn something.”Educate Together schools are multi-denominational schools that came about when a group of parents and educationalists came together in 1978 with an interest in establishing an alternative patronage system. Since then the organization has expanded to include a network of sixty-five schools around the country. Rather than offering one specific religion as a backdrop for spiritual education, the schools draw from all major religious faiths and humanism in the education of children. Respect and understanding within difference is the defining ethos of the schools. Like other national schools, Educate Together is State funded however, unlike other the other schools Educate Together provides access for all to its services. Attendance does not come down to being a member of a religious organization.“There are religious secularists,” says Mrs. Donnelly. They believe that all children should be brought up together and not segregated on the basis of their children’s religion. If you think about the patronage system, there are only a certain amount of patrons. The essence of it is that we segregate children because of their parent’s religious convictions. That we bring up a certain group of children in essentially the same area in one school and segregate the other lot in another school. That is not good for society.”The largest group who declared themselves as having “no religion” in last years’ census was the 25-29 year olds at thirteen per cent. Up until now parents have been largely quiet on the issue of the place of religion in education. The generation now entering the age of parenthood looks likely to be the most vocal on the issue. In order to avoid a Mexican standoff between the Catholic Church, the State and an increasingly secular public, the time is now for the State to provide for all its children and not leave it to private hands.