Church patronage in the education system

A few years ago I had a conversation with an English couple whom I know to be atheists. To my surprise they started telling me about their energetic efforts to get their daughter into a Church of England-run primary school in their town, rather than the non-denominational school that was right on their doorstep. Indeed to make their efforts more effective they had started to attend the local Anglican church every Sunday (though they confided that this would stop as soon as they had been successful in their attempt or had failed). I asked them how they could defend this behaviour in the light of their strongly held atheist views, and they replied without any embarrassment that educational quality for their daughter came first, and church schools were always better.

My English friends had a choice, which they were exercising in what I thought was an odd way. Many Irish parents don’t have any choice at all. Well over 90 per cent of Irish primary schools are under the patronage of the Roman Catholic church, and a significant percentage of what remains is run by the Church of Ireland. Of the 3000 or so primary schools in Ireland, fewer than 100 have no religious affiliation (58 being run by the wholly admirable organisation Educate Together).

What may seem curious to uninformed observers is that when you look at the Irish national primary school curriculum there is no mention of religious education at all. In fact that is hugely misleading, because in reality about 10 per cent of school hours are given over to religious instruction. Furthermore, this part of primary school life is uncontrolled by the state (in contrast with the secondary school curriculum) and is entirely in the hands of the church that owns the school.

As Ireland has become rather more multi-cultural than before the system has come under pressure. In fairness, one of the early and outspoken advocates of change has been the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, who has expressed a desire to see some schools move out of the patronage of his church and who has cooperated with initiatives to bring this about. Now the new Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, has indicated that he sees the transfer of schools out of Roman Catholic patronage as one of his priorities. I don’t know whether he also plans to re-consider the curriculum, but I suspect that he may.

To me it seems obviously right that education and denominational religion should be entirely separated – and maybe I should add that I hold this view despite being a practising member of a Christian church. I also believe that religious instruction – as distinct from religious education of an impartial nature – should have no place in the school system but should (where desired) be offered outside of school hours. These are reforms that should be carried through as a matter of urgency. And for what it is worth, I would argue that similar reforms are even more urgent in Northern Ireland, where the religious/tribal separation of young people is a major cause of sectarian antagonism.

I hope that the minister’s plans are successful and help to modernise the education system. And I believe that if this happens, it will also greatly benefit the churches. But should we allow some schools to remain under church patronage, so that those (like my English atheist friends) who wanted a church school for their children could seek it out? I think that schools within the state system and funded by the taxpayer should not answer to any other organisation, so my reply would be ‘no’. But I believe that the framework of ethics that drives the better ones of these can be successfully absorbed into the state school system. For those who really really want denominational education, I suppose they should still be able to get it on a private school basis, but without state financial subsidy.

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8 Comments on “Church patronage in the education system”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The problem is how do we, on the exit of the Christian Churches, provide the education to match what your mates require for their sprog óg. Here the education budget is sacrosanct because of it’s connection to the church, and lets not make mincemeat here, the Catholic Church. Should this be removed and primary education handed to the State or an agency appointed by same. We will end up in the worst of all worlds, like in the UK.
    What we’ve at the moment can be fixed relatively easily by the State in the guise of the Dept’ of Ed being a bit more hands-on.
    And what harm, outside of the potential costs of having to instruct a plethora of religions in the rudiments of their Faiths, does the few hours do when we’ve a ruddy huge Hippo in the form if Irish language instruction swallowing gargantuan blocks of time. If ever there was something in which to operate an ‘opt-in’ policy it’s Irish. And an opt-in that that happens outside the school day. We could do a lot of maths, reading and writing in the time released.

  2. A bizarre feature of the Irish educational system is that most primary teachers are employees of the Catholic Church rather than the State (although the State does pay the teachers’ salaries). This is because teachers’ contracts are with the Board of Management (an agent of the Patron) rather than with the State. As Church employees, primary teachers in Catholic Schoos are then obliged to spend considerable time teaching Catholic doctrine and preparing children for Catholic rituals such as Communion, Confirmation and Confession. The State needs to promptly change these contracts, making the contract with the State rather than with the Patron (or any agent of the Patron). This should be done regardless of any changes to the Patronage structure, not least because it contravenes Article 44.2.2 of the Constitution which affirms that “The State guarantees not to endow any religion”

    Donncha Kavanagh

  3. Al Says:

    Should be good as long as what replaces it isn’t some pc horseshit incapable of character development…
    There, I said it…

  4. Eileen Cruickshank Says:

    Indoctrination of children is always reprehensible. No child should be exposed to this in school; sadly their parents have been indoctrinated within the same system. It must be stopped.

    • Vincent Says:

      Indoctrination of children is unavoidable. But what you make certain is that there is something in place to counter it. That’s one of the reasons why I believe Philosophy should be THE major part of first year. Remember when Cromwell came over to visit he didn’t bother the Native Irish at all. No, all he hit was the threat to his power in England, the Norman towns and hinterland. But to read school history of that period you’d think he laid about him with total abandon.

  5. Cora Says:

    Prof Von Prondzynski,
    There is one major inaccuracy in your piece of writing and another point which could be misleading for readers. I think that it is important to address both of these.
    Firstly, contrary to what you say, the NCCA does indeed mention Religious Education and names it as one of the seven subject areas in the Revised Curriculum. Whilst not prescribing a curriculum for RE, the NCCA does stipulate that 2.5 hours per week should be devoted to the subject.
    Secondly, Minister Ruairí Quinn is keen to progress the divesting of SOME Catholic schools – not all as might be inferred from your piece (although this may not have been your intention). Minister Quinn seems to be in favour of diversity of school choice which we all agree is long overdue and hopefully this process will unfold sooner rather than later.
    I apologise if I seem to be pedantic but as someone who works in the field of Religious Education, I think that it is important to engage in the debate and to clarify terms. Another misunderstood term is that of Religious Education itself which should not be equated to indoctrination. It is insulting to teachers to be constantly charged with this. Good Religious Education is critical in its approach.
    As regards, the availability of faith schools, I feel as a parent that it is imperative that these be available and not just on a fee-paying basis…… why should the lesser off be deprived of an education which is supportive of their values?
    I am delighted to see you opening up the conversation and thank you for the opportunity to respond.

  6. It’s hard to see that preparing children for the sacraments of a particular religion is anything but indoctrination. If there was a truly critical dimension then one would expect that some teachers would refuse to do this work and be allowed to do so. However, as they are Church employees this isn’t an option.

  7. Dear Ferdinand,

    I am surprised that you state that “there is no mention of religious education at all” in the primary school curriculum. The Primary School Curriculum Introduction (NCCA, 1999) clearly states in a number of places that religious education is a core area of the Primary School Curriculum in Ireland.

    Specifically, in outlining the Specific Aims of the Primary Curriculum, Chapter 4 of the Introduction states that one of it’s purposes is to:

    “enable children to develop spiritual, moral and religious values”. (p.34)

    The Curriculum goes on to explain that among its general objectives it intends to develop a knowledge and understanding of the pupil’s

    “own religious traditions and beliefs, with respect for the religious traditions and beliefs of others”. (p. 36)

    Most clearly in Chapter 5, the introduction to the Curriculum outlines that there are 7 curriculum areas one of which is Religious Education (p. 40). Finally, in more than one place the role Religious Education in relation to general education is affirmed (p.23; p. 28; p. 49; p. 57; p. 58; p. 67; p. 70) probably most explicitly where it states that:

    “ The importance that the curriculum attributes to the child’s spiritual development is expressed through the breadth of learning experiences the curriculum offers, through the inclusion of religious education as one of the areas of the curriculum, and through the child’s engagement with the aesthetic and affective domains of learning”. (p.27)

    You are correct however that the State, in line with the Education Act (1998), delegates responsibility for the development of Religious Education in the Primary Curriculum to the relevant church authorities. However, it would be a mistake to interpret this as a separation of Religious Education from the rest of the Curriculum as the introduction to the Curriculum also states that within the intended organisational framework:

    “it is important to emphasise that all aspects of the child’s development are interrelated and that the developmental process is interactive and complex”.
    p. (40)

    It would also be incorrect to understand Religious Education in the Primary School Curriculum as purely instructional in nature. In his judgment on Campaign to Separate Church and State v the Minister for Education (1996) Mr. Justice Costello affirmed the constitutional rights of parents vis-á-vis the religious formation of their children within schooling funded by the State. His conclusions were later affirmed by the Supreme Court in a judgement delivered by Mr. Justice Keane (1998). In summary, these judgments found that parents have a right to have their children receive both religious instruction and religious formation within schooling provided by the State.

    Finally in relation to the question of the place of RE in the Curriculum, it is important to note that the Teaching Council requires all those seeking to register as a teacher for Primary Education to be able to teach the Primary School Curriculum to all levels of primary school. As such, a graduate of the BEd degree who was unable to teach the Religious Education component of the Curriculum would not be able to successfully comply with the Council’s regulations (1999, p. 9).

    Having clarified the above, I do agree with you that we are at a particular stage in the history of Irish education which calls on us to find positive solutions that respect the rights of those who desire denominational education and those who do not.

    From my perspective this challenge has to be viewed from a human rights perspective.

    Your propose to allow for those who desire denominational education to pay for this in fee paying schools. It could be argued then that as tax payers they are being denied the same rights as other citizens and punished for their religious beliefs.

    Furthermore, if we create a State run system that leaves Religious Education and spiritual development out then we are making a value judgement about what we believe education to be.

    The Education Act (1998) clearly reflects an understanding of education that is holistic and in that context to leave out the religious and spiritual would be to deliver something that was less than holistic, in the same way as if we were to leave out environmental studies, health and leisure or Mathematics and French.

    On the other hand, there is an ongoing responsibility on the part of the majority who desire and run denominational schools to find a way to deliver education that serves the common good and is inclusive of those who do not identify with the religious majority.

    Thus far no one on either side has been able to come up with a solution to this problem that satisfies everyone, however, dare I suggest that we return to and extend the original aims of the Stanley Letter (1831) which favoured schools that were established for the joint education of Catholic and Protestant children. In other words, the government could provide additional grants to schools that were under the joint control of a number of patrons and worked to find ways to support different religious and spiritual perspectives. This is fundamentally different to the approach of Educate Together in that it would allow for the role of churches in the running of schools but in partnership with others on an equal basis. In my book Ethos and Education in Ireland (New York: Peter Lang, 2003) I argued for a form of school something like but not the same as we find at second-level in Community Schools.

    Best wishes as ever

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