“Puberty is a gift from God. We are perfectly designed by God to procreate with him.”
These lines, taken from a new relationships and sexuality education programme for use in Irish primary schools, have prompted dismay and anger from education experts, politicians, and parents.
Entitled Flourish, the programme has been developed by the Irish Bishops’ Conference for children from junior infants to sixth class. The text stresses that the Church’s teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman “cannot be omitted” and that a “couple need to be committed to staying together” if they are having children.
One can only imagine the impact these words will have on any children in the classroom from single-parent families or with unmarried or same-sex parents.
As shocking as this programme is, it has come as little surprise to Education Equality, a parent-led human rights group that has been campaigning to disentangle this kind of religious influence from our education system since 2015. We have heard countless stories from parents about the discomfort and social ostracism their children endure on a daily basis in our schools.
Government rhetoric about ‘pluralism’ and ‘inclusion’ is sharply at odds with the treatment of children who are not of the patron’s religion.
- “I didn’t like having holy water thrown at me because I am not religious,” says Liam, 8*.
- “I feel awkward when everyone is saying prayers. I sometimes feel everyone is looking at me because I am not saying them,” says Anna Mae, 11.
- “I didn’t like not being able to get a homework pass and jellies in the principal’s office because I didn’t sing in the communion choir. It made me feel like I had done something bad,” says Connor, 11
- “When the priest came around and flicked water at me I felt really uncomfortable. I stepped back and tried to explain that I am not religious but he splashed water at me anyway and made my top wet,” says Eoghan, 9.
This is an unusual way to run an education system. We can thank the concept of ‘subsidiarity’, which seeks to assert religious social teaching as the dominant influence in education and restrict any activity by the State, except of course in the matter of finance.
Staff salaries, school refurbishments, light, heat — all are paid for by taxpayers. However, many of the policies that govern our schools are set not by the Department of Education but by religious clergy, who are effectively unaccountable to the public.
So the Flourish programme is just one more symptom of the bishops’ ‘integrated curriculum’ in action.
Formally introduced in the 1970s, this approach to education meshes the patron’s religious beliefs with every imaginable subject. Rather than simply being taught science, for example, children may be invited to discuss “the part science plays in God’s world”. This offers no logical benefit from a pedagogical perspective and denies religious freedom under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Schools also devote 30 minutes every day to formal religious faith formation, which is afforded almost as much time each week as history, geography, and science combined. Religious worship is commonplace, as are visits by clergy and diocesan inspectors. Further time is devoted to sacramental preparation.
Schools have an umbilical cord with the State when it comes to funding but a dotted line when it comes to upholding constitutional safeguards, such as the long-neglected right to opt out of religious instruction. Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution provides for “the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”.
In practice, this right is illusory. Children who are ‘opted out’ may be treated differently from their peers but they inevitably absorb much of the lesson regardless.
The Government has pinned its hopes for reform on the Catholic Church voluntarily ceding control of schools through divestment. The aim is to have 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030, a modest target that is nevertheless unlikely to be met. By leaving the modalities to those most keen to defend the status quo, the process has been engineered to fail. In truth though, divestment is a sideshow.
A glance at recent referendum results — over 87% of 18-24-year-olds voted in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment in 2018 — shows how much Ireland has changed. Tinkering with patronage is not enough.
While the nettle of Church control has yet to be grasped, it has certainly been approached. Recent legislation such as the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015, and the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 demonstrate the growing agency of the State in our education system and a concomitant decline in Church influence.
Despite this, religious doctrine continues to be taught as fact in our classrooms. This has not escaped the attention of domestic and international human rights bodies, which have made repeated recommendations that Ireland provide accessible options for children whose parents do not want them to attend religious instruction.
This programme is discriminatory, harmful and in conflict with the Irish Constitution. And it is being unashamedly forced on a captive audience of impressionable young children.
So what should be done? Education Equality believes it is time to finally close the chapter on religious ethos in our schools. Enough! We need to consign the integrated curriculum to history and move all religious faith formation lessons to the end of the school day, outside core hours, on an ‘opt-in’ basis with parental consent. Equality for all children in the provision of an essential public service such as education is not a big ask in a liberal democracy.
Schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate. It’s time we learned the difference. Until we do, we will continue to stumble from failure to farce.
- *Names have been changed