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.