Faith in our schools

Irish Times editorial, Monday March 31, 2008

Ireland’s educational system is catching up with social change induced by migration and greater religious diversity after decades of operating with a model that delegated control of most schools to the various churches. Three new community primary schools planned in west Dublin have been announced by Minister for Education Mary Hanafin as pilot schemes for future education planning. They will be managed by the Co Dublin Vocational Education committee. But they are conceived as multi-faith schools, not non-denominational ones. As a result important issues about how to involve churches in their governance and religious education have yet to be resolved.

Last week Ms Hanafin denied firmly there will be any veto rights for churches on such issues, indicating that the sole responsibility for their management will rest with the VEC. The Roman Catholic Church also denied it is seeking a veto, even though its official representative is on record as demanding that teachers delivering Catholic instruction to pupils be “approved by the competent religious authorities”.

While Ms Hanafin’s statement is welcome, it does not resolve ambiguities arising from the very choice of a multi-faith model of education. Its logic is that children will be enrolled into distinct streams; and at least for the religious elements of their education they will be separated out into these streams during the school day. That does not easily make for an integration educational experience. And it raises valid questions of competence and control for churches charged with responsibility for that religious education. It is to be an education about religion or into a particular religion, for example? And if the latter, would it not be better to conduct such courses outside the normal school day for those parents who want them? Could these two approaches be combined?

These questions and others are to be discussed at a consultative conference of relevant educational stakeholders in late June announced last week by Ms Hanafin. She wants it to consider the challenge of creating a new multi-faith ethos for these schools; how parental choice and capacity can be reconciled; and how they will meet the principle of inclusivity. While this too is welcome, it prompts a number of other important questions. How firmly does the political choice of a multi-faith rather than a non-denominational model for these schools in fact represent parental choice in this area of Dublin? In Diswellstown, the Educate Together organisation points out that parents of over 250 children have already sought places in a new school to be run by it that it is at present awaiting recognition and access to State-owned facilities. It seems to them that this alternative model has been pre-cooked to pre-empt a non-denominational alternative.

That would be unacceptable, especially given the pilot nature of these three schools for the rest of the education system. This conference should not be a substitute for political debate on that larger strategic issue.

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