Two parents who addressed the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector on behalf of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland said their children have been lucky to attend one of two Muslim schools in Dublin.
Pupils there follow the same curriculum as other schools, learning their Muslim faith during the time for religious education, and also taking classes in Arabic and the Koran.
But for some of the estimated 4,500 Muslim children attending other primary schools, Fatima Abdul Basit said many parents raise the lack of a prayer room for their children as a big issue.
“They need to go to pray at break time, but sometimes that can be a problem. [Also], holiday times for Muslim feasts, like Ramadan, for example, that’s why a lot of Muslim parents put their children in Muslim schools. And also for travel, people will go back home during those times,” she said.
But, she said, Muslim parents themselves need to do more to raise awareness among other children and families about their culture, such as why girls and women wear head scarves.
Other reasons why a Muslim school is preferred by those with a choice were highlighted by Nisreen Mehdi.
“Children who don’t go to Muslim school miss out on a lot of spiritual [teaching] or they might be the only child fasting in the school. It doesn’t mean they don’t fit in but it just makes it harder.
“They want to be in an environment where they’re happy, that’s why [they want] schools that give them that environment and freedom to express themselves as well, like for girls when they are in the hijab.”
Asked by forum advisory group member Fionnuala Kilfeather for their views of a broad moral and ethical education programme that could be taught to all children in all schools, they expressed their support. The idea of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) for developing such a system has been put to all groups at the forum and received positive feedback.
Earlier, the forum heard of a need for access to all-Irish education for every child from An Foras Pátrúnachta, which is patron to 58 primary schools.
While the country’s all-Irish schools have 25 different patrons, the group suggested it could be the sole patron to all-Irish schools without requiring a change to the characteristic spirit of those that moved under its patronage.
Nóra Ní Loingsigh, acting chief executive of Gaelscoileanna, which represents all-Irish schools outside the Gaeltacht, said there could be support for a local enrolment system in different areas to reflect the choices of parents and avoid social division.
She said that, despite perceptions of gaelscoileanna being elitist, all-Irish schools are open to international children and 13 of their schools are in the Department of Education programme for those with the highest numbers of disadvantaged pupils.