Comment: Parents' choice is stifled due to the dominance of Catholic ethos schools

Former biochemist, education professional and mother, Catherine O’Mahony on why we must decouple education and religion in order to give our children the education they deserve
Comment: Parents' choice is stifled due to the dominance of Catholic ethos schools

90% of publicly funded primary schools fall under Catholic patronage.

“Momma, holy dog lives in the sky and looks after the dead babies”, lisped my 4-year-old as she trotted in home after her day at preschool. I groaned inwardly having thought I would have had a bit longer before intentionally talking about religion at home and having to explain our non-religious position. While the preschool incident was reflective of what her peers were talking about, lack of choice of schools has meant we attend a Catholic ethos primary school under the patronage of the Catholic church.

So far our school has been very supportive of our choice to be excused from religious studies and we were anticipating engaging in project work this year instead of First Communion preparations. I was deeply upset to see the emergence of the Flourish curriculum this week as a supplement to the Social, Personal and Health Education programme.

The Flourish curriculum focuses on Relationships and Sexuality Education and has been designed in collaboration with the Council for Catechetics of the Irish Bishops Conference. It is intended to be used as a supplement to the SPHE programme in all schools under Catholic patronage.

Given that 90% of publicly funded primary schools fall under Catholic patronage this means that pupils - regardless of their religious views - will have an essential part of their education shaped by a religious viewpoint or they can sit it out.

This is problematic for number of reasons. Many parents do not agree with the Catholic church’s stance on LGBQT+ nor see themselves reflected in its description of the family unit.

The Flourish curriculum, while acknowledging the existence of other types of families, clearly privileges a heteronormative view and one based on the nuclear family which no longer reflects modern Ireland.

Research has shown the necessity of SPHE education to help pupils to develop social and personal skills to manage situations. Spending class-time on aligning with religious doctrine takes time away from a useful focus on acquiring and practicing relevant skills.

 Article 42.3.2 of the constitution requires the State ensures that all children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social. Given the religious framing of this topic does this mean that some pupils will need to sit out this vital part of their education?

As a former biochemist and education professional, the suggestion that puberty is a gift from God particularly rankles. Puberty reflects the maturation of the body. It is not a preparation for motherhood, nor should information here encourage a particular view as to when life begins.

Given the many and varied scandals we have experienced around women’s health in Ireland the focus on puberty as a ‘gift’ discourages a deeper understanding of the female body and health.

There is a larger issue at play here. I am referring to a mismatch between the schools available and the rights of citizens to a more culturally and religiously diverse society. Parent’s choice is stifled due to the dominance of Catholic ethos schools.

The ‘Provision of Sex Education’ before the Dáil is an attempt to base relationships and sexuality on objective, factual grounds without recourse to the ethos of a school. My preference is that RSE be drawn from this approach and that religious teaching remain in religion class, or that parents and faith groups take on an educational role here outside of school.

If ‘holy dog’ lives in the sky, as my daughter suggests, then I hope he/she is doing a much better job of looking after the dead babies than we managed here. I also hope that religion and education can be decoupled and that our educational system changes to reflect a modern Ireland where each child feels respected and included.

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