I raised the issue on Thursday in the Senate of the need for the Minister for Education and Science to expand educational development to increase the numbers of non-denominational schools in Ireland, thus avoiding the reinforcing of sectarian divides by separating children according to denomination during their core school hours.
The Minister is well aware that Ireland is a rapidly developing multicultural society, with all the cultural, religious and denominational differences that brings. Unfortunately, we have an educational superstructure which does not reflect this and which is rather unsympathetic to this change in society. I am asking the Minister to adjust the system or way of providing grants and recognising and developing schools in a way that will reflect the desires and the different religions and denominations of those now in Ireland.
I do not intend any criticism of the schools run by the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland when I say those who want a choice are not being adequately catered for. Those who would prefer that their children are not educated in the faith of the majority, minority or any other denomination should have the choice of opting out. Education in these schools should be encouraged but religion should be placed outside school hours. Students should have the choice of attending any school and religious ethos should not be determined by the school because the present system, whereby those who are not part of the religious denomination sponsoring the school are separated during religious education, has the potential for creating unnecessary and harmful divisions in society.
I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the statistics. More than 90% of the 3,300 primary schools in this country are run by the church, including 100 schools for special needs. The fact that fewer than 10% of schools are run by other bodies demonstrates that the wishes of those who do not want a particular religion to be taught in schools are being undermined. In the next five years, 100,000 new pupils will attend primary schools, an enormous number which equates to approximately 3,700 additional classrooms. These children will come from all types of religious denomination and their desires and needs cannot possibly be met under the present system.
I recognise the fantastic work that faith-based schools have done in educating children but the issue of choice has not been properly recognised by successive Governments. I see very little wrong with giving people the option of denominational or religious education outside school hours. We are facing a novel situation and it would be reasonable at the very least to increase the number of schools which teach religion outside school hours. If religion is taught during school hours where a large proportion of pupils are not of the school’s denomination, difficulties and divisions will arise.
Educate Together promotes a learn together programme for the teaching of religion. This programme teaches pupils about religions and beliefs but does not tell them what they ought to believe. The practice of pushing religion of any sort down people’s throats is counterproductive and, as with many of this country’s sacred cows, people are more enthusiastic and interested once religion is made voluntary.
It would be preferable for greater numbers of schools to have a religiously neutral ethos than rather than allowing virtually every school to promote a particular denomination. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin recently stated that he would be perfectly happy if some of the schools currently managed by his church were transferred to other patrons. He feels it is unrealistic to maintain the current pattern of Catholic patronage if this does not reflect the religious preferences of the wider population. A recent poll of 327 parents conducted by Red C for the Irish Primary Principals Network found a preference of two to one for the choice which Educate Together wishes to offer, that is, non-denominational schools with religion taught outside school hours.
Increasing the number of non-denominational schools does not mean an additional charge on the Exchequer. Schools which are currently in the denominational camp could be designated as non-denominational. It is merely a matter of switching from involuntary to voluntary, thereby giving people the choice of attending schools in which no single religious denomination dominates. There seemed to be a lack of urgency about the Ministers plans. I asked for his assurance that the principle of choice, which Educate Together finds so important, will guide the Government’s thinking when it is establishing and giving recognition to new primary schools? His response was again lacklustre and so I shall continue to raise this issue until we have the assurances we need that the infrastructure of our education system is building towards a diverse environment of growth and development.