“I AM upset because I am not Catholic and this class is not for me. If you knew what it feels like to be left out, you would be as upset as me.”
These read like lines from a 1940s memoir but they’re actually the words of Molly, an eight-year-old Cork girl talking about her life in school today.
It is astonishing to think that in 2021, a publicly-funded education system in a Western republic would force religion onto children against their parents’ convictions. And it is strange that the Government would continue to leave religious clergy to run the show. But this is Ireland, where the unthinkable is routine.
Our taxpayer-funded schools are still far more likely to be visited by a priest or bishop than by an inspector from the Department of Education. And when school inspectors do show up, the discrimination endured by children like Molly is not on their agenda.
It’s unusual for a developed society to run an essential public service like education based almost exclusively on a system of religious patronage. Clearly there is no logic to subjects like science, maths or English being influenced by religion. But even today, the Church continues to use its dominant position to impose its teachings on schools in breach of parents’ human and constitutional rights.
Let’s remember where the money comes from here. It’s the taxpayer who foots the bill for staff salaries, running costs and new school buildings.
But despite the eye-watering sums spent on education each year, the Government prefers to ignore the experiences of the growing number of children being segregated and excluded within their own classrooms on the grounds of religion.
While schools depend on the State for funding, they often ignore constitutional safeguards such as the right to opt out of religious instruction. Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution provides for “the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”. In practice, all that happens is that children who are ‘opted out’ are put in a different seat and told that they don’t have to take part in the class. But they inevitably absorb much of the lesson regardless.
Opting out is an Irish solution to an Irish problem, but it has not stopped more and more families from exercising their rights. Addressing this in 2016, Secretary General of the Department of Education Seán Ó Foghlú warned that “Schools need to prepare for situations where a majority of students may wish to withdraw” and that soon “religious instruction and worship may be required by a minority, if at all”. His words seem to have fallen on deaf ears within his own Department, however, which does not record the number of opted-out children and has refused to give any guidance to schools on their opt-out policies. Nevertheless, its officials must know that the number of families affected by this problem is growing.
Changing attitudes are reflected in the annual marriage figures, which have shown a consistent decline in the popularity of Catholic marriages from over 96% in 1980 to less than 35% in 2020 and a corresponding increase in non-religious ceremonies from below 2% to almost 50%. Meanwhile, over 87% of 18-24-year-olds voted in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment in 2018. Our schools may be Catholic but young Irish couples, increasingly, are not.
Nothing has thrown a harsher spotlight on Ireland’s dysfunctional Church/State relationship than the controversial new Flourish relationships and sexuality programme developed by the Irish Bishops’ Conference for use in Catholic-run schools.
To the anger of parents, politicians and educationalists, this material teaches students that they have been “perfectly designed by God to procreate with him” and tells young children concerned for their safety to say the “Angel of God” prayer. It also stresses that the Church’s teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman “cannot be omitted”.
This material is so problematic that some schools have already rejected it, with more likely to follow.
The Government has been remarkably unambitious in its response to this issue. Successive ministers for education have put their faith in the divestment process, which seeks to gradually shift a small number of schools to multidenominational patronage. Ten years into this initiative there is almost nothing to show for it. Divestment efforts are simply not a credible response to the rapid changes that are taking place in Irish society.
For too long, the State has failed to put effective measures in place to protect children from religious discrimination. However, we can address this problem without needing to wait for changes in school patronage. By moving religious faith formation lessons to the end of the school day on an opt-in basis, outside core hours, we can empower families and give parents a meaningful choice in every school as to whether or not their children receive this instruction. This is something that can be done now, at minimum cost to the exchequer.
Molly should not be left at the back of the classroom every day and made to feel different. She should not feel upset in school because her parents don’t share the same beliefs as her school’s patron. Society has changed, our schools must too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Graham is a parent and Communications Officer with Education Equality, a human rights organisation campaigning for equality in the provision of education for all children regardless of religion.