Their study of religious diversity in Irish schools says the need to overhaul the education system, which is dominated by religious congregations, reflects the significant social changes of the last few decades.
The Trinity College Dublin team of Daniel Faas, Merike Darmody, and Beata Sokolowska says the Irish system has an integrative approach to teaching about religions, rather than the opt-out opportunity afforded children at schools in some countries. Writing in the British Journal of Religious Education, they say: “As a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society, it is imperative that Ireland continues to strengthen a non-discriminatory perspective in education and promote religious pluralism.”
While acknowledging progress in the diversification of the primary sector, just two religious-owned schools have been divested to other patrons. “Rather than a challenge, religious and moral education (as opposed to indoctrination) should be seen as an opportunity to help younger people to understand, and respect, the increasingly diverse world and communities around them, without compromising their own sense of self and their identity,” the authors wrote.
However, at an event on denominational education last night, Reverend Professor Eamonn Conway, of Mary Immaculate College, in Limerick, said it was unfortunate there was a bizarre impression that it was the Church’s responsibility to facilitate and enable the provision of non-denominational schools.
“Church communities that see faith-based education as part of their mission of evangelisation should not rush to abandon schools, where these can still be genuinely at the service of its mission,” he said, at the event hosted by the Iona Institute.
He also described as bizarre proposals for a compulsory world-religions course in all primary schools. “Its introduction in faith-based schools will undoubtedly affect religious instruction and a faith-based school’s characteristic ethos. The issue needs careful and urgent attention,” said Reverend Professor Conway.
Despite pressure to remove the onus on parents to have children baptised to be able to attend local primary schools, this is unlikely to be facilitated by Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan. Her forthcoming Admission to Schools Bill is expected to propose to maintain the right of schools to give preference to children of their faith, by upholding their exemption from equality-law provisions in relation to religion.
Reverend Professor Conway said parents who do not want their children taught in faith-based schools should not face the “very real dilemma” they do, but said there are other issues that deserve attention: “There is a danger that the current focus upon possible discrimination, on the basis of baptismal certificates or their absence, could distract from other equally pressing forms of exclusion that stem from economic injustice.”
The TCD researchers suggest inclusive practices that go beyond admission policy and acknowledge religious difference as a way forward, particularly in rural areas where there are not enough pupils to justify new schools.