Religion in the Irish education system

Date:
“Father Ted: It’s not as if everyone’s going to go off and join some mad religious cult just because we go off for a picnic for a couple of hours.
 
Father Dougal: God, Ted, I heard about those cults. Everyone dressing in black and saying our Lord’s gonna come back and judge us all!
 
Father Ted: No... No, Dougal, that’s us. That’s Catholicism.”
 
It's hard to describe the sense of revolt that those of us who were in our late teens or early twenties felt when Father Ted hit our television screens for the first time. We were probably the last generation of an Ireland that cowered in fear beneath the shadow of the bishop's cloak, who were brought to Knock on a rainy Sunday afternoon when it was sunny everywhere else, and who as children, might be cheeky to a teacher, but never to a priest.
 
In the early nineties things began to change. There wasn't a revolution in the sense of people in the streets, of government cracking and a system falling, but of a discernible change in peoples' attitudes. Whether it was the x-case, ex-pats returning from more progressive and bohemian climbs, greater access to news and entertainment from across the globe, or a combination of those factors, change was in the air.
 
Your old road is rapidly agin'
I started secondary school in 1989. It was an all boys catholic school and the priest who taught us religion was obsessed with masturbation. When he'd preach about the evils of self pleasure and ask us all if we had committed that sin, his eyes would bulge, partially in indignation, and partially, we suspected because he took some perverse pleasure in it. None of us questioned him. None of us told our parents. None of us admitted to the act of self pleasure, which no doubt, to a boy, all had dabbled in, and probably had felt guilty about it afterwards. After all, God was watching. God was a voyeur.
 
By the time 1994 swung around and the leaving cert loomed, we were drawing slips of paper out of a brown paper bag, with made up sins, tall stories to tell the priest when we went to our pre-annual school mass confession and I laughed when he told me I was going to hell for writing an essay about how Jesus was a communist. Years later we found out that Father Fire and Brimstone had left the priesthood.
 
It wasn't just that the boys of St. Pats in Navan had gotten older and bolder either. In 1992 Ireland voted in a referendum to allow abortion in very limited circumstances (though it took over twenty years to be legislated for), condoms became available over the counter, and in 1995 we voted to legalise divorce. The following year, the last Magdalene laundry closed.
 
With so much change in such a short space of time, it would have been reasonable to expect that the influence of the church in affairs of the state would have completely crumbled by 2014. It hasn't though; The limited legislation on abortion allowed by the passing of the x-case referendum in 1992 was only passed in 2013, the waiting period for a divorce after separation is still four years and there still has been no justice for the survivors of the laundries. Worryingly, the church still plays a crucial role in education, in the molding of minds.
 
 
We are so perverted by an education
In 2010, Bishop Donal McKeon, wrote:
 
'All education is focussed, not merely on passing on useful information, nor just on training people for employment but on the formation of the whole person. Parents want to help their children grow, not just prepare them for work. The most important task that any of us will do is to be a human person as a social being. The Catholic Church has long established her own schools, because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole person, since the school is a centre in which a specific concept of the world, of the human person, and of history is developed and conveyed. Our faith-based education is thus not just a way to hand on Christian teaching about God. It explicitly involves “….the formation of the whole person, so that all may attain their eternal destiny and at the same time promote the common good of society.”i
 
There is something quite sinister in the idea of an organisation that played the role that it has in Irish society, that has covered up child sex abuse, subjugated women and pontificated against homosexuality having a “privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole person.” Promoting the common good sounds very wholesome, but what “concept of the world, of the human person, and of history”, is being conveyed?
 
This year secondary school students were taught that a rape victim can’t become pregnant, abortion damages a woman’s internal organs and that abortion destroys a woman’s mental health by a group called Life, Pregnancy and Care (LPC), who were invited by schools to give talks on pregnancy advice. One student told how “The speaker presented one anecdotal story of a woman who had an abortion in her early 20s, got married around the age of 30, got pregnant and then had a breakdown and had her child taken away from her, Then she told another story, similar to that, about a woman who got pregnant and aborted again because she didn’t feel she deserved to have a child.”ii
 
Another Catholic group, Pure in Heart Ireland (PHI), has been traveling around the country giving talks in schools on chastity. PHI, has it's headquarters in the same building as the notorious anti-choice lobby group, the Iona Institute, who achieved nationwide infamy recently when they received damages from RTE for being described as homophobic on national television, despite the fact that they stringently oppose marriage equality.
 
PHI's promotion of chastity in at least one instance involved two student's being sellotaped together, then told that this represented a sexual relationship. Their break-up “was demonstrated by one of the speakers ripping the Sellotape off their wrists, in what must have been somewhat painful. The process was repeated with the three other girls (and the same guy, with the same piece of Sellotape). This was supposed to demonstrate the effect of having sex before marriage. The Sellotape collects hair and is no longer useful.”iii Students were also warned that watching pornography was akin to being a serial killer.
 
Far from promoting the common good, the Catholic Church and connected groups like LPC and PHI, serve up a particularly sordid and twisted “concept of the world (and) the human person.” It is not, however, only in the molding of minds that the church plays a baleful role.
 
 
I am Zuul. I am the Gatekeeper.
It's no secret that the Catholic church is anti-choice. We're used to seeing the organisation in this light through the prism of the fight for abortion rights. Catholicism has had a big part to play in the regressive policies of the Irish state that restrict bodily autonomy for anyone with a womb. However, the church also restricts choice in other areas, health care for example, with the patronage of hospitals, and of course, education.
 
Those who wish to protect their children from the type of psychological abuse that comes from being indoctrinated in the Catholic “concept of the world”, have their choices severely restricted, particularly at primary level. According to a 2011 report by the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), out of a total of 3,169 primary schools in the state, the Catholic church were patrons of 2,841, that is, 89.65%. Other religious bodies accounted for 197 schools, 174 of which were Church of Ireland. In contrast, there were only 131 schools run by secular bodies, 58 of which were Educate Together, with only 9 under the patronage of the Minister for Education and Skills. In total, religious faith based schools account for 96% of primary schools in the state. While non-denominational bodies make up the bulk of patrons of the 116 new primary schools opened since 1997, Catholic Church patronage still accounts for a quarter of these.
 
The restrictions on the type of education a child can avail of that results from religious patronage is one thing, but it also means that access to education is restricted. With effective control of almost 90% of primary schools, the Catholic church is the gatekeeper of the education system. This means that it can exercise, as Kitty Holland put it in a recent article for the Irish Times, “a religiously based exclusion at children as young as four.”(iv)Both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, prioritise children of their own faith on waiting lists, meaning that children with no religion who have been signed up for enrollment from birth, by the age of four are still way down on the waiting list, with no prospect of a place.
 
As Kitty Holland points out in the same article, “The Irish State has been repeatedly castigated for allowing this discrimination against children to continue, by the United Nations in 2006, 2008 and again in 2011, when its Human Rights Committee noted with concern that the dominance of denominational education was “depriving many parents and children who so wish to have access to secular primary education”.
 
Despite the fact that faith-based enrollment policies are viewed internationally as discriminatory, there is no attempt by schools to even make a pretense of equal access. And it isn't just the Catholic Church who discriminates. One parent who was attempting to enroll their child in a Church of Ireland school, described her experience in an ESRI report “..the secretary rang me back a few weeks later and she was saying ‘on the form, you wrote that you were of no religion. And I said ‘Yeah, well we are of no religion’ and she said ‘Look, I have to tell you that you just won’t get a place if you write that…If you write any religion at all, you’ll be further up the pecking order than if you write none’”v
 
In most cases where faith-based criteria are applied to school enrollment policy, children who are of no religion end up on the bottom of the list, with children of whatever religion runs the school at the top. Understandably, with the Catholic Church controlling almost 90% of school bodies, parents who would prefer not to get their children baptised to secure a place, often relent. It seems the Conservative MP for Dublin, John Vance was on to something, when he said during a debate in the Westminster parliament in 1871, that “home rule in Ireland, would prove to be “Rome rule.”
 
 
I am the Keymaster! The Destructor is coming.
The discriminatory nature of faith-based school enrollment policies notwithstanding, there is nothing illegal about the practice. The church could not exert the influence it does without the co-operation of the state. It is the state that holds the keys to exchequer funding and the legal framework that religious schooling is built on.
 
The law that governs who can enter a school, and probably more importantly, who cannot, comes from the Education Act, 1998 in Section 9, which states that a school must “establish and maintain an admissions policy which provides for maximum accessibility to the school”. So far, so good.
 
This Act also contains Section 29 which provides for appeals by parents (or students who have reached the age of 18) to the Secretary General of the Department, which includes refusal to enroll a student in a school as a decision that may be appealed. Decisions taken by schools in relation to the suspension or permanent exclusion of a student can also be appealed under this provision. So if the law calls for “maximum accessibility” and allows for appeal on grounds of unfair refusal to enroll, how are religious bodies able to discriminate on the basis of the possession of a baptismal cert? Well, there's a catch.
 
Section 19 of the Education Welfare Act 2000 provides that the Board of Management shall not refuse to admit a student, except where such refusal is in accordance with the admission policy of the school concerned. Confused? No, you didn't misread that. Schools have to admit everyone, apart from the sort of child they'd prefer not to. Essentially, they can do as they please when it comes to admissions, and guess what? Catholic schools have a Catholics first admissions policy, COI schools have a COI first policy and so on and so forth.
 
But wait. School enrollment policies and practices are also covered by equality legislation (Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004) which prohibits discrimination on nine distinct grounds, gender; marital status; family status; age; disability; race; sexual orientation; religious belief, and membership of the traveller community. 
 
But despite the fact that the Equal Status Acts specify that a school may not discriminate in the admission of a student, or discriminate in the terms and conditions of admission, once again, certain exemptions apply. Single sex schools are recognised and here, the law provides for an exemption in relation to gender. A second exemption concerns schools where the objective is to provide education in an environment that promotes certain religious values.
 
When this algebraic equation of legislation is multiplied, divided, added and subtracted, the upshot is that, a school that has this objective can admit a student of a particular religious denomination in preference to other students. Such a school can also refuse to admit a student who is not of that religion, provided it can prove that this refusal is essential to “maintain the ethos of the school.” Schools therefore have a free rein to discriminate against, to exclude and to decide the fate of children of four and five years old. 
 
Furthermore, they have the power to effectively force parents to baptise children in order to gain admission to their schools and once they have exclusive access to these young minds, they have carte blanche to “promote certain religious values”. All of this, and they get to do it with taxpayer funding. Despite the fact that the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, launched a public consultation on inclusiveness in primary schools, his department is also consulting on a new Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill, the draft of which retains schools’ right to exclude children who don't meet the required religious criteria.
 
 
Who ya gonna call?
For parents who don't want to have their children baptised into the Catholic church, who don't want to have their children indoctrinated and exposed to psychological abuse and harmful attitudes towards sexuality and gender, among other things, the options, particularly at primary level are few and far between. One chink of light in the recent past has been the establishment of Educate Together schools, which account for 42 of the 116 schools opened since 1997 and amount to 58 schools in total.
 
Educate together are multi-denominational schools. They teach the primary school curriculum which includes half an hour a day spent on “faith formation”. Educate together schools however, use this time to teach what they call the “learn together curriculum.” This curriculum is broken into four strands. The first concentrates on “understanding and awareness of right and wrong and a heightened awareness of social, ethical and moral standards through reflecting on the meaning and purposes of life.” 
 
The second aims “to develop in children a critical knowledge, understanding and awareness of issues relating to human rights, equality, culture and diversity, social justice and social inclusiveness and to empower them to make a difference.”vi The third strand of the curriculum is where it comes closest to religious instruction. The belief systems strand however, covers the six biggest world religions, along with atheism, agnosticism and humanism. In the fourth strand, children are taught environmental ethics.
 
A complete overhaul of the school curriculum, indeed, in how children learn, is desirable from an anarchist perspective, but as things stand, Educate Together seems to be the best we have. The fact that there are more of these schools opening now, than Catholic schools is a positive. But 58 schools is not enough for a country in which 270,000 people described themselves as having “no religion” on the last census. The major shift in attitudes towards “traditional catholic values”, sexuality, bodily autonomy and marriage that occurred during the 1990's has yet to be reflected in laws pertaining to the education system.
 
While it might be difficult to immediately remove the church from the patronage of schools, for want of a replacement, without revolutionary change, in the here and now, it is important to work towards undermining the power of Catholicism in education. The first step should be to vigorously oppose practices that discriminate at point of access to education. In the twenty first century, there should be no room for a system that values some children more than others and that would deny a child the right to learn and develop. Secondly, there should be an opt-out from religious instruction, so that children do not have to be exposed to warped ideologies based on superstition, misogyny, homophobia and unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality.
 
These should be the first steps, not only in removing the influence of religion from the lives of children but in changing the way we think about learning. The ultimate aim must be to do away with “an education which from infancy seeks to kill in us the spirit of revolt, and to develop that of submission to authority”vii and replace it with one that allows each child to develop themselves to their full potential, as free human beings, without gods, without masters.
 
 
 
References:
 
i “The role of the Churches in Education”, Bishop Donal McKeon, Press release, October 2010
    
ii “A lesson in Abortion”, Peter McGuire, The Irish Times, February 1st 2014
 
iii “Students taped together by wrists in sex education talk by Catholic group”, Michelle Hennessy, The Journal, February 17th, 2014
    
iv “For children with no baptismal certificate, the school gates seem to be closed”, Kitty Holland, The Irish Times, December 12th 2013
    
v “Religion and Schooling in Ireland: Parents' Perspectives”, ESRI
    
vi The Learn Together Mission Statement
 
vii  Kropotkin, P.A. “Law and Authority”
 

This article is from issue 9 of the Irish Anarchist Review - Summer 2014

Comments

Religion in the Irish Education system

A very good article on the Irish education system.

A couple of interesting points. The nine state schools are run as religious schools. Five are Catholic and four Protestant . I discovered last week that one of these schools actually discriminates on entry. This means that the Dept of Education (the patron) are discriminating on religious grounds.

Educate Together schools do not teach about atheism or humanism. They are in fact multi-denominational schools not non denominational.

The situation is just as bad at second level as all schools are obliged to teach religious instruction. That includes the ETB (VEC) schools, Community schools, Designated Community Colleges and non Designated Community colleges. There is no escape.

Thanks for the info on the

Thanks for the info on the state schools. The bit on Educate Together teaching atheism and humanism came from their own mission statement. Maybe some teachers don't do it but they say they are doing it. 

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