School-child

By Emma O Kelly, Education Correspondent

There’s good news today for non-religious parents of young children in Tuam, New Ross, Castlebar and Birr. From September, for the first time, it looks like they will be able to choose multi-denominational education for their offspring.

As in very many areas across the country, such parents have currently no choice but to send their children to religious-run schools, overwhelming Catholic-run schools.

There are 10 primary schools in Tuam and the surrounding area. Every one of them is Catholic. There are 8 primary schools in the New Ross vicinity, again all Catholic. It’s the same in Castlebar, all 11 primary schools there are Catholic. And Birr has 6 primary schools, 5 Catholic and one Church of Ireland.

It’s a situation that all sides accept is untenable and its drawn international criticism for Ireland from the UN and other human rights bodies.

The Catholic church here, centrally at least, accepts that things need to change. However acceptance is one thing, movement is another.

Its almost three years now since the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism published a comprehensive report on this issue. It recommended a process for the divesting of schools, away from Catholic to multi-denominational patronage.

Since the report of the forum, 5 multi-denominational schools have opened in towns as part of the divestment process. Today’s announcement will bring this to 9. But most of these schools are or will be in temporary accommodation.

In just two cases, Basin Lane in Dublin, and Castlebar, has the Catholic Church agreed to hand over a school building to accommodate the new school. Negotiations in other areas are continuing.

The report also stated that all other schools, regardless of their religious ethos, needed to put in place policies and procedures to ensure that they would be fully welcoming of all children, no matter what their background.

Its author, Professsor John Coolahan, told RTÉ News recently that he was disappointed by the lack of progress on both these fronts. Speaking before today’s announcement he said both the state and the church needed to be more proactive.

Many parents share this disappointment. For a significant minority this is a burning issue. RTÉ News has spoken to non-religious parents who feel obliged to baptise their children simply in order to get them in to a school.

Parents who are not religious have also told RTÉ of the pain and isolation they and their children can feel in a Catholic school when it comes to making communion or confirmation. They say opting out of religious instruction doesn’t really work because religion, in the form of prayers etc, frequently permeates the entire school day

Many of these parents want non-Catholic multi-denominational education for their children. But virtually all of these parents also say that above all they want their child to feel included, no different to anyone else, part of their local community.

Even if they were able to, many of these parents say they do not want to have to remove their children from their local community. They say they shouldn’t have to.

Of course this issue doesn’t just effect parents who are not religious. There are Catholic parents who would prefer their child to be educated in a multi-denominational setting.

There are parents of other minority religions who would prefer a multi-denominational school.

And there are no doubt many Catholic primary schools that manage to make every pupil, no matter what their background, feel fully accepted.

The Catholic bishops are expected to publish guidelines aimed at ensuring that Catholic schools are inclusive of all. If these are to be meaningful they will have to address the issue of opting out of religion for those who wish to.

What alternative lessons can a school offer? What can it offer to children who aren’t making their communion for instance? What worthwhile activities can they engage in while their classmates prepare?

And then there’s the thorny issue of Rule 68. Drawn up half a century ago, paragraph 68 of the Rules for National Schools states that “of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important”. It goes on to say that “Religious Instruction should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”. John Coolahan, in his report, recommended that this rule be deleted “as soon as possible”.

But, three years on, it is still there.