Rule 68 states that 'of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important'

In his April 2012 report on pluralism and patronage in schools, Professor John Coolahan recommended that the primary school regulation known as Rule 68 be deleted “as soon as possible”.

It looks like, more than three years on, that’s finally going to happen. Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan announced on Tuesday that she would abolish the rule in Januar

Rule 68 is one of a set of regulations drawn up in 1965 to govern national or primary schools here. The rules have no statutory basis and so can be changed at will by the minister.

Rule 68 states that “of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important”. “Religious Instruction is therefore”, it says, “a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.”

40 years on, Rule 68 is not the only part of the ‘Rules for National Schools’ that makes for curious reading.

The rules state for instance that Junior Infants should “as a rule” be taught by “a mistress” or an “assistant mistress” as opposed to a male teacher. Rule 69 states that the religion of each child should be ascertained from the parent, “the father, if possible”, it adds.

Rule 68 may be archaic – according to the minister it is – but it remains influential.

In notes of internal Department of Education meetings held in recent years – received by RTÉ News under Freedom of Information legislation – Rule 68 pops up, cited as a reason why religious instruction must be provided in the new Community National Schools then being established.

Its deletion will be welcomed by all those seeking to make our primary schools more acceptable to children of all or no religion.

But the abolition of Rule 68 will not help today’s non-Catholic children who’ve been refused admission to their local Catholic schools.

The Equal Status Act, which allows religious-run schools to favour children of their own denominations over others – when there is competition for places – will have to be amended to solve that problem.

Schools will have to be pushed to develop proper policies to enable students who want to opt-out of religion to do so.

And the dominance of religious-run schools will have to be addressed. Currently 97% of primary schools here are run by the churches, in the vast majority of cases by the Catholic Church. The need for change in this regard is accepted by the Catholic Church.

However since the current divestment process began more than three years ago, just two Catholic primary schools have changed hands.

Last week opposition TDs introduced amendments to repeal the section of the Equal Status Act which allows religious schools to discriminate against children of other religions or none.

The three main parties, Fine Gael, Labour, and Fianna Fáil all voted against.

The Minister for Education’s new Admission to Schools Bill, currently before the Oireachtas, does not address this issue.

But the minister said yesterday she accepted that “the current position cannot and should not” be maintained. She said while equality legislation did need to be amended, there had to be protection for the small number of minority faith schools.

She said the Labour party had agreed that its manifesto for the forthcoming election would include a commitment to do exactly that.

For the substantial minority of parents and others who are clamouring for change, the promised abolition of Rule 68, coming in the last days of this Government, is a step in the right direction. But deeper, and more politically contentious, reforms are overdue.

Four years ago, in his first public engagement, the Government’s newly appointed Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, made clear that reform of Ireland’s religion dominated primary education system would be a priority for him.

In the intervening four years we’ve had reports, and surveys, and some new multi-denominational schools. But for the vast bulk of families affected by this issue, nothing has changed.