- 14 Feb 19
The separation of Church and State in education is the next battleground for many Irish political activists – and there are already moves afoot to accelerate the process, with Educate Together schools offering a new model based on equality of treatment.
In terms of the campaign to separate Church and State, Ireland has come a long way. That much was evident first in the comprehensive ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum for marriage equality, which was achieved despite the deep-seated opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland; and even more definitively in the decision by the people to repeal the 8th Amendment, finally allowing abortion in Ireland.
Both of these decisions are part of a wider process of change: a gradual unravelling of the often hidden means by which the Roman Catholic Church has exerted tight control over the everyday lives of ordinary people in Ireland – irrespective of their religion, creed, class or colour – more or less since the foundation of the State.
The word ‘gradual’ is important here. Because, history-making as those victories for common-sense – and for a truly pluralist vision of Irish society – were, and are, there remain huge areas of Irish life where religious vested interests still exert an insidious form of control.
Health is one, with the Church having insinuated itself into ownership of hospitals to an extent that is highly questionable at best. This is an ongoing battle-ground, as bleakly evidenced by the controversy concerning the ownership of the planned new National Maternity Hospital, which seems certain now to co-locate with St. Vincent’s Hospital on the Merrion Road.
It will be a travesty if the State fails Irish people on this issue and allows the Sisters of Charity – or their proxies – any kind of say whatsoever in the governance of the hospital. But it may happen. And that is just one example of the creeping stranglehold exerted yet by the Church and its agents.
RIGHT NOT TO BE BRAINWASHED
In education, individual battles may be less dramatic, but a similar, stealthy, obstructive form of control is exerted by the Church at every level. On the surface, the language used by the hierarchy is conciliatory. But every step of the way, in truth, every effort is made by them, and by the religious orders, by hook or by crook, to frustrate and to delay progress towards the secularisation of our schools system.
The lack of co-educational, multi-denominational, Educate Together-style schools is a symptom of this much wider malaise. But for the parents of young children, it is an issue of vital immediate importance.
“From my experience as a parent, I believe it’s vital that we move towards a more secular education system,” says Ivana Bacik, the leader of the Labour Party in the Seanad, and Professor of Law at Trinity College. “Despite the growing popularity of multi-denominational education, 95% of our state primary schools remain religious-owned and controlled. This situation is completely untenable.”
In addition to campaigning on the issue, Ivana Bacik is one of the founders of a new Educate Together primary school in Rialto, Dublin. She is hugely critical of the role of the State in enabling the continuing domination of education by religious vested interests.
“It has curtailed choice for parents in many areas,” she insists, “and has led to the existence of the so-called ‘baptism barrier’. It has also meant that, because of the continued dominance of religious ethos in many schools, pupils do not participate in national sex education programmes. So I believe more radical steps need to be taken to address the fundamental problem that the majority of our national schools remain in church or religious order ownership.
“This, incidentally, is despite the fact that the State pays for teachers’ salaries, and building upkeep, for all national schools. Until we tackle this issue, and address this core church-state relationship, we will not be able to introduce a properly secular education system in Ireland.”
Paul Gavan, Sinn Féin Seanad Spokesperson on Education, is of a similar view.
“The Ireland of today is a much more diverse society,” he says, “with people of many different religions and of no religion at all. Yet, this is not reflected in the make-up of our schools, with around 95% of national schools still under the direction of the Catholic Church.
“This means that Catholic religious instruction and ethos remains at the centre of the school day, even though a growing number of parents have no desire for this to be the case.”
Given the increasingly diverse nature of Irish society, it seems self-evident that religion should be removed from the ordinary school curriculum. If parents want their children to be taught religion, then it can be done after school. But the idea that children have to assert their right not to be brainwashed by absenting themselves from religious instruction represents a gross abuse of their right to be treated equally.
Paul Gavan is uncompromising in his view. “The Department of Education needs to take a much more radical approach,” he states. “It has to set much more ambitious targets, for example, regarding the transfer of schools from Church to State patronage. It also needs to take a stronger line in negotiations with the Catholic Church re: the transfer of assets.”
Gavan also asks the kind of question that anyone committed to the complete separation of Church and State wants answered.
“What is the government’s vision for a secular education system?” he asks. “How long will it take to divest school patronage from the Church? We need to develop a proper long-term plan for our education system.”
Currently the pace of reform is glacial. Like Paul Gavan, it is Hot Press’ view that radical steps are required, including the need for the State to take a hard-nosed approach to the issue of ownership – and everything that surrounds it, including the status, charitable or otherwise, that is accorded to religious orders.
In the meantime, however, the least you might be entitled to expect is that positive encouragement would be accorded to Educate Together schools. Instead, it seems that bizarre obstacles are being created to frustrate those who want their children to be educated in a way that is free of the overbearing influence of religion.
The patronage structure for a new secondary-level school, planned for the land at what was the Harold’s Cross Greyhound Racing track, is still to be decided. With that in mind, a series of private and public meetings have been taking place, involving parents as well as political representatives from Harold’s Cross and surrounding areas.
Some of these parents are from nearby Dublin 8 and Dublin 12. What these parents want is to be included in the catchment area set out for the new school – which is decided by the Department of Education – and to have the opportunity to partake in the planned survey of parents, which is an influencing factor in the nature of the patronage structure to be decided by the Department.
The issue of ‘catchment area’ is of central importance to what is a political hot potato in the making. Already, the specifications being imposed by the Department of Education in relation to the catchment area have plunged the whole project into controversy. The catchment area for the school currently includes Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W, but runs across – very strangely – to Clonskeagh, a huge journey for children and parents alike to make at any time of the day.
On the other side, even children from as little as a mile away, in Dublin 8 and 12, are excluded. On the face of it, it makes no sense whatsoever.
“It was very important for me and my husband, when we went to search for a school, that our kids would be educated in our religion, or in a school that offers the respect to everybody’s religion,” one parent, living in Dublin 12, said at a public meeting, held in Griffith Barracks Multi-Denominational NS.
“We contacted several schools, and the answer we received was, ‘You know we have a Catholic ethos here, if the child is not Catholic we would be happy to keep them in the classroom, but they won’t study it’.”
EQUALITY OF TREATMENT
It is self-evident that it is an insult to any family’s religious ethos, for a child to be forced to sit through a class where different religious assumptions and precepts are being inculcated. But to have to leave the class might be even worse.
“In the end, our decision was to travel every single day back and forth, to and from Dublin 6 where the appropriate school for us is located,” the parent told the meeting. “The kids are now used to it, but they can see other kids walking to schools locally and all their friends in a different area. It’s wrong.
“We have to travel all the time back and forth, taking time which should have been quality family time. I’m very happy at this meeting, because I can see a lot of other people can relate to what we are going through. I can definitely say that there is no solution at the moment in Dublin 12 – and we really need to do something about it.”
What was clear from the contributions of many parents at the meeting is that there is a growing feeling that the State – in the form of the Department of Education – has failed miserably in its responsibility to ensure equality of treatment for children of different religious backgrounds, and for those of no religion at all, within the educational system in Ireland. And what makes people angry, and increasingly so, is that on a day-to-day basis there is a simple, straightforward solution: remove religion entirely from the ordinary school day.
But the roots run deeper too, with the issue of so-called ‘patronage’ at the heart of it. This is the device which allows religious vested interests (including lay diehards) to control what happens in a school, and the priority given to a specific religion (or in modern waffle, ‘religious ethos’) – usually, but not exclusively Roman Catholicism. This is, indeed, the next big battleground.
People Before Profit TD, Bríd Smith, is also fully behind the parents’ campaign for equality of treatment.
“The meeting was great,” she says. “It was packed with young parents who want to stand up for choice and equality for their children. The catchment area rule that prohibits children from the Dublin 8 and 12 areas not having access to the school planned for Harold’s Cross is nonsense. The Minister needs to change this rule immediately.”
But the campaign is really not just about any one school.
“I was particularly impressed,” Brid Smith points out, “as to how parents at the meeting articulated their demands for their children. This relates to the need for a new Ireland, post-Repeal, to separate Church and State – particularly in the areas of education and health.”
ONE MOTHER'S TESTIMONY: IS THERE A PLACE FOR A LEGAL CHALLENGE?
“My daughter is in the Educate Together primary school here in Griffith College, thankfully. We live in Dublin 8 and we rent our house. She is only in senior infants, but I’m thinking: do we have to move to Dublin 6 when she has to go to secondary school? Do we actually have to move house? Because that is how important the Educate Together secondary school system will be for our family.
“Her dad’s background is from various countries across the world. He speaks eight languages. The multi-national, multi-denominational facet of the community is so important. We have to respect it fully in the way our schools are run.
“Certain key words are coming out here, at this meeting. One is ‘choice’. For me, another one is ‘logic’. What makes sense? Walking to school is how it should be, whether it’s through a field with no shoes on or not. It doesn’t matter. Kids should be independent going to school, so you must cater for all children equally in our local schools.
“The other thing I’m thinking of is a legal challenge. I’m wondering if that is being considered? Campaigning, debating, raising points in parliamentary questions that don’t get responded to, or don’t get respect, is not working. So, is there a place for a legal challenge?”