Making an article of faith

Article by Paul Rowe, CEO of Educate Together – Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In its approach to religious instruction in primary schools, the Government is walking itself into a situation in which it will profoundly interfere with the religious rights of individuals, argues Paul Rowe.

Educate Together is currently waiting for sanction to open 13 new schools this September. If approved, this will represent the largest single expansion of the multi-denominational network since its inception 30 years ago and indicates the growing confidence of young parents in Ireland in this model of education.

The Educate Together model is founded on a legal commitment to parents, staff and children to run a school based on equality and respect “irrespective of social, cultural or religious background”. The approach aims to mirror our contemporary social space in which division and discrimination on religious grounds in unacceptable.

The founding concepts are those of human rights and equality. This provides a rich discourse between different world outlooks that is inherently educational and respectful. From the earliest stages in school, a firm foundation of kindness and friendly interaction can be built using these guiding ideas. Far from being value-free, the discourse on rights and community provides a powerful set of ethical concepts that are echoed in almost all religions.

The Educate Together model is built around this discourse. It places the responsibility for faith formation on the child’s family and if they belong to one, their religious organisation. The responsibility of the school is to provide a learning environment that is safe and supportive of the identity of the child – whatever that is.

In practice, the Educate Together schools deliver a programme of ethical education called the Learn Together programme. This is given the same amount of time in the school day that is given to the Alive O or Follow Me programmes in Catholic or Protestant schools. The Learn Together programme has been designed to fit the methodologies of the revised curriculum that is used in all national schools. It is an interesting framework that has been recognised as an example of best practice in inter-cultural education by the EU anti-racism authority.

The programme has four strands: moral and spiritual development; equality and justice; belief systems; and ethics and the environment. Religion is explored in the belief systems strand. In this, children are helped to find out about the main belief traditions in the world, including the great religions and the humanistic and non-religious outlooks. The school promotes a respectful interchange between these viewpoints while carefully declining to promote any one.

The aim of this programme is to allow young children to appreciate, be informed and be comfortable with those of differing faiths to themselves. This empowers them to critically interact across viewpoints within a common language of human rights and respect.

At the same time, the board of management of an Educate Together school makes its facilities available to any group of parents who so wish to run specific faith-formations classes. These take place outside the compulsory school day. For instance, Catholic parents organise sacramental preparation classes this way and many Educate Together children are prepared for confession, communion and confirmation in services organised through their local parish.

This approach ensures that no child is made to feel that they are an outsider as a result of their identity. It avoids situations in which children are separated or absented from any part of the school programme because of their family’s religious views. It also ensures that no teacher is placed in a position where they must teach as religious truth a viewpoint they may not believe. The out-of-hours faith-formation facility assists the full rights of families. In many Educate Together schools, these are held as part of a range of extramural activities that ensure that they are fully integrated with the life of the school community. It is legally integrated and completely compatible with equality legislation

This approach is very different from that being imposed on parents in Dublin 15 by a government decision to pilot a VEC community national school. As recent documents released under Freedom of Information procedures show, the three schools involved have already been pre-configured to ensure that Catholic faith-formation classes will be offered within the compulsory school day.

Children will be registered according to the religious identity of their parents, and teachers will be required to supervise their separation at set times during the week. Only those faiths considered to be the “main religions in the school community” will be provided with State-funded faith-formation teachers, and those that do not qualify will be taught a common ethics programme.

The approach will depend on the State being able to argue that such unequal treatment is reasonable under the Equal Status Acts. It also opens the spectre of the State having to establish quotas – whereby certain religions can qualify as “main” – and employ inspectors to validate the religious allegiance of families and a teacher’s religious qualifications.

The Government appears to be unwittingly walking itself into a situation in which it will profoundly interfere with the religious rights of individuals and in which it will have to seek the power to approve religious faiths. The growing popularity of the Educate Together model would suggest that an increasing number of Irish parents have already chosen a more modern and integrated approach.

Paul Rowe is the CEO of Educate Together

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