Thursday, 2 October 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Shane Ross: The matter I wish to raise is 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.
Deputy Seán Haughey: The changing shape of our society is placing new and complex demands on our education system as it responds to the diverse needs of our communities. The Government is acutely aware of this challenge.
Our model of school patronage has served us successfully for many generations. We are indebted to the churches and, in more recent times, the newer patronage bodies for their leadership in creating and sustaining a national network of primary schools that have provided opportunities for generations of children, laid the roots for social cohesion and formed the core of our collective identity and sense of civic community and belonging. As the largest patronage body at primary level, the Catholic church will continue to play a significant role in education provision into the future. Nevertheless, the significant changes that have taken place in society in recent years have required a collective review of our approach to school provision. The church has itself made an important contribution to this review in its very considered commentary on the need for a greater plurality of provision to respond effectively to these changes.
The rapid growth of the Educate Together and gaelscoil sectors has been an important part of the response to changing circumstances. These schools have introduced a new level of choice for parents in many areas. There are now 56 Educate Together schools, 12 of which opened this September. However, the new social realities have also created a new form of demand. A single denominational approach cannot meet the full range of community needs where parents have a clear wish for particular forms of religious education or faith formation to be provided within the school setting during the school day.
The Government’s decision to establish a new model of patronage at primary level seeks to meet the need for a new plurality of education provision within the framework of a single school setting. This model of community national schooling is being piloted in two locations in Dublin 15 from September 2008. Scoil Ghráinne in Phibblestown and Scoil Choilm in Porterstown are providing a distinctive new choice alongside the existing patron body schools. These schools are characterised by an ethos of inclusion, equality and harmony, where each child and member of the school community is valued and treated with respect. That ethos involves welcoming, valuing and respecting children from a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious backgrounds. Families of all faiths and none are welcome and all will be supported through the curricula offered in the schools. Religious diversity will be acknowledged and celebrated in an atmosphere of inclusiveness rather than avoided. The schools will operate in a spirit of partnership among patrons, teachers, students, parents and the wider community served by the school.
The pilot phase provides an important learning opportunity and will enable informed decisions on the possible roll-out of this new model of patronage in other locations. As the Senator may be aware, the Minister recently announced a full review of the criteria and procedures for the recognition of new primary schools. I want to ensure that the policies and procedures for establishing new schools are brought fully up to date and that they will be appropriate to the significant increase in the number of primary school pupils we expect over the next five to ten years.
The Minister is committed to ensuring that the Department of Education and Science has a transparent and robust system for recognising new primary schools, which will be appropriate for the changing circumstances of the country, and looks forward to consulting with patron bodies, education partners and other interested parties as part of this review process. The approach of the new community national schools is to celebrate religious diversity in an atmosphere of inclusiveness. The Minister is also committed to this approach and the Senator can be assured it will be at the centre of education policy in this area.
Senator Shane Ross: I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It seems there is a lack of urgency about this. Could he assure me 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?
Deputy Seán Haughey: As I said at the outset, everybody, including the Department of Education and Science, recognises the dramatic changes taking place in Irish society. The Department is particularly conscious of the number of primary school students who will present themselves over the next five to ten years. As I said, the Minister has announced a full review of the criteria and procedures for the recognition of new primary schools in order to take account of the issues put forward by the Senator. The assurance I can give is that the Minister is conscious of the change in circumstances and is reviewing policies in the Department to take account of this.
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