NEW rules on the place of religion in more than 300 multi- denominational second-level schools come into force this morning, but it may be autumn before class timetables can give full force to the change that will, effectively, make religion an optional subject in almost half of our secondary schools. The legislation does not have any consequences for more than 370 voluntary secondary schools operating under the aegis of religious orders. Nine comprehensive schools fall outside its remit, too.
In the schools where the legislation applies, and it is hard to understand why it does not apply in all schools as all are funded by the State, students who do not wish to take religious instruction must get an alternative class; they can no longer be told to sit silently at the back of a classroom or banished to a library. To borrow a phrase from another area of conflict, they must be offered parity of esteem rather than being cordoned off in a way that must be seen as a tacit condemnation of their position. This enforced separation not only divides classmates, it must put unnecessary pressure on relationships between children and parents too. In an increasingly diverse society — and one that will become even more so — it hardly encourages the idea of assimilation either. Failure in this area is a real threat, as many European countries have discovered to their cost.
The Department of Education will tell secondary schools today that organising religious instruction based on the assumption that majority of students are Catholic is no longer appropriate. “The Constitutional right not to attend religious instruction must be given effect,” the department points out. How this reality-based evolution plays out in national schools remains to be seen.
In the context of snail’s-pace reform in this area, this modest change is welcome and long overdue. The idea that the State should not only support but tolerate a sectarian education system while pretending to cherish republican values is just another of the Gordian knot contradictions that colour Irish life all too vividly. That trenchant, anti-democratic resistance to creating a new educational and social landscape can be seen too in how the department has imposed enrolment limits at some multi-denominational schools.
The department has restricted enrolment at five Educate Together schools to a half-stream limit, which means just 13 new pupils will be enrolled next September. The decision affects schools in Trim, Co Meath; Tramore, Co Waterford; Tuam, Co Galway; New Ross, Co Wexford, and Castlebar, Co Mayo. The rationale, apparently, is to protect other schools in those areas that might face pupil flight if parents had an alternative. Even by the standards of that cure all beloved by politicians reluctant to make a hard decision — an Irish solution to an Irish problem — this seems a masterly, Jesuitical way of sustaining convention amplified by the double whammy of limiting the evolution of multi-denominational schools. A win-win for old Ireland. In most European countries this change would be seen as a matter of housekeeping, of social evolution. Why is it so very different, so very difficult here?