Faith Formation in National School Classrooms

Letter to Editor of The Irish Times from Paddy Monahan: 9 January 2018

Sir, – In your otherwise excellent editorial on the “baptism barrier” (January 5th), you state “many schools are flexible and inclusive”.

Some 96 per cent of taxpayer-funded primary schools in Ireland have a religious ethos and, as father to a three-year-old boy who happens to be unbaptised I have to ask, where are these flexible and inclusive schools? I have searched pretty hard and have yet to come across one (outside the 2 per cent of schools in the State run by Educate Together).

The Constitution sets out “the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”. Around 90 per cent of our primary schools are run by the Catholic Church, and in virtually all of them children not of the Catholic religion are sent to the back of the class for 30 minutes of mindless busy work every day while the rest of the class receives faith formation. This segregates and stigmatises children as “other” on a daily basis throughout their childhood while also breaching a clear constitutional right as such children absorb every word of the lesson being taught – not exactly inclusiveness. Catholic patrons appear deaf to the simple and expedient solution of moving faith-formation lessons outside the school day.

If, when it stated many schools “are flexible and inclusive”, the editorial meant “will enrol children of any religious background”, then I am afraid this is simply factually wrong. Almost every school in this country prioritises four-year-old and five-year-old children in enrolment on the basis of their religion.

We must be wary of mistaking an undersubscribed school that is obliged by law to take any child, but will rigidly apply its discriminatory enrolment policy as soon as it is fully subscribed, for a school that does not have such a policy in the first place. The mere existence of a discriminatory enrolment policy at the local school places years of stress and anxiety on parents of children of no religion or of a minority faith as to whether they will be lucky enough to get a place when the time comes. It also, of course, encourages baptisms of convenience; Catholic parents are safe in the knowledge that their children will always be in the top enrolment category.

To be clear, in my experience Catholic primary schools are neither flexible nor inclusive. If there is an example of a Catholic school anywhere in the country that does not operate a Catholics first enrolment policy and does not segregate children on the basis of religion, I’d love to hear of it. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 5.

Minister Bruton’s favouring of Community National Schools (CNS)

This Letter to Editor appeared in the Irish Times on Friday 10 June 2016.

 Whatever about the possible merits of the CNS model it completely undermines their bona fides to have it suggested by Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, that any church have a role in running these school in the future. Does the Minister not know that the people removed the special position of the Roman Catholic church and the recognition of other named religious denominations from our Constitution on 5 January 1973 – yes that long ago! [5th Amendment]

No churches should be involved in management or control of any ‘divested’ or CNS school.

Sir, – Currently, children of parents whose identity is interwoven with a religious faith – Muslim, Christian or Hindu, for example – as well as those whose identity is interwoven with a belief or a life-stance – Buddhism, humanism or atheism – all attend community national schools.

Given this multifaith and belief community, the Goodness Me, Goodness You programme is a response to the ministerial brief given to these new schools in 2008 “to cater for all faiths and none during the school day”.

The programme has been created in accordance with a particular set of guiding principles and governed by the community national school ethos, which includes the commitment “to respect, celebrate and recognise diversity in all areas of human life”.

Goodness Me, Goodness You is a faith and belief-nurturing programme. It is not an ethical-moral programme, nor is it a programme that assumes a secular stance from which it educates about religions. Community national schools do not invite the child to enter the school and then require her to “suspend” a part of herself that it decides should be excluded from its educational endeavour. Rather, it welcomes all children and it welcomes all of “who” the child and her parents believe her to be. It educates by acknowledging and working with the child’s experience, affirming the child’s core sense of identity and belonging and seeking to nurture the child’s developing sense of different ways of belonging and not belonging, in different contexts (home, school, local community, faith or belief community, civil society, material world, and so on). It endorses the child’s faith or belief as an important factor – stronger for some than for others – influencing her sense of identity and belonging.

Pupils and parents in the community national school community share much in common. But they also have differences between them (and indeed within them) – differences that enrich our plurality and are to be celebrated. For example, Islam is not the same as Hinduism, Christianity is different from humanism, and there are also differences within Christianity, as there are differences within Islam, yet all teach respect for the Earth and its life-forms.

In an effort to be true to what is shared in common and equally true to what is not shared but is distinctive, Goodness Me, Goodness You has sought to evolve both programme content and ways of structuring teaching and learning that enhance the educational potential of commonality and difference.

Currently, for 24 weeks of the school year, all children in the class explore the same Goodness Me, Goodness You lessons. Children interpret these lessons in different ways and, with the support and guidance of their home, bring the riches of their particular faith or belief tradition to their interpretation.

For approximately four weeks of the year, children regroup according to their different faith or belief tradition and explore lessons designed to take account of that specific tradition.

Much has been made of this second dimension of the community national school approach as “segregation of children along religious lines”. I would like to challenge this view. In following the primary school curriculum, children form and re-form into many different groupings and sub-groupings at different times and for different parts of the curriculum, depending on children’s needs and available resources.

To interpret the forming of groups according to distinctive faith or belief needs as “segregation” seems to me to deny the right of community national schools to recognise children’s faith and belief needs as needs.

Furthermore, it would seem also to deny this part of the curriculum as a legitimate curriculum on a par with all other parts of the curriculum. It also denies the school, under its ethos, the right to adopt strategies in relation to its curriculum that best meet its children’s differing needs.

The question is not therefore whether it is legitimate that children should form groups according to their faith and belief traditions. The real question is, in the eyes of those who claim segregation, what prejudice prevents children’s needs in this part of their school curriculum from being recognised as valid and deserving of strategies designed to meet them?

If recognition of difference were the only basis on which children’s curricular needs in this area were dealt with, then the accusation of segregation would be a serious one. However, this is patently not so. The fact is that for the much greater part of their school year, children are brought together to be educated in faith and belief. Community national schools, I would argue, are the only schools that deliberately bring children together to educate them in faith and belief. They do not bring children together and bypass the difficulty of “faith” by removing it from the curriculum altogether, in favour of “belief” that is non-religious. – Yours, etc,


Marino Institute

of Education,

Dublin 9.

Education Equality on Religion Tests for admission to National Schools

Letter to Editor in The Irish Times, 31 December 2015 from April Duff of Education Equality.

This statement is important because it sets out to deal with the two abnegations of human rights taking place in our National Schools under Roman Catholic patronage.

(1) religion tests in the form of baptismal certificates being applied for admission to a school;

(2) the integrated curriculum, driven illegally by Rule #68, prejudicially affecting the Constitutional right of a child not to receive faith-formation

Sir, – Education Equality welcomes the call by Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan for changes to the Equal Status Act to ensure greater access to our national school system for children of parents of minority religions and no religion, insofar as it is an acknowledgment of a serious issue which needs to be addressed (“Minister calls for places for unbaptised pupils”, Front Page, December 28th).

While Labour’s proposals have not been set out in detail at this stage, it would appear, from the Minister’s comments, that they will involve some form of quota system whereby a certain percentage of school places would be set aside for children who are not of the same religious denomination of each school.

The parents who we represent do not want their children to be accommodated, tolerated or labelled in this manner. Our parents want the State to honour its obligations to their children and ensure they are granted full and equal access to the State-funded national school system, obligations which are placed on the State by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and our own Constitution.

In addition, no details have been provided as to how Labour intends to address the issue of exposing children to religious indoctrination against their parents’ wishes during the entire school day. Again a clear breach of human rights.

The Minister’s earlier announcement of her intention to remove rule 68 of the national school rules, which currently requires that religious instruction is the most important part of the school day, is largely symbolic in nature. The removal of rule 68 will not lead to the removal of the integrated curriculum that ensures religious instruction permeates the entire school day.

In fact, the Minister has stated that denominational schools will continue to be entitled to hold faith-formation classes during the school day.

Many of our parents, whose children have been offered places in denominational schools, speak of the bittersweet feeling which accompanies such an offer. They consider themselves “lucky” to have been able to secure a place without having to compromise their own beliefs. However, they are fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead of them as their children will feel ostracised during large parts of the school day and they will hear their teacher, a person of great influence, express views and beliefs which will often be in direct contradiction to their own.

Education Equality is disappointed to see that Ms O’Sullivan is quoted as saying: “I’m not saying denominational schools shouldn’t have their own religious faith taught during school time . . . They are entitled to do that”. It is true that the Constitution protects the rights of religious institutions to uphold their ethos. National schools are educational establishments. There is no constitutional or human right of religious schools to have the State fund religious education, during school time, which conflicts with some children’s beliefs.

There is, however, a constitutional and basic human right to freedom of religion. Teaching faith formation in one religion’s beliefs in the only school system that we have, in a way that imposes it on children of other religions and none, violates that right. In order to protect religious freedom, denominational schools do not need to be removed, but the way they operate does need to change.

Education Equality is proposing that faith-formation classes be held at the end of the school day, outside of normal school hours. This would ensure that no child’s human rights are violated, while also allowing those parents who wish to do so to opt their children in to faith formation.

We believe this is a pragmatic solution to the issue and will ensure the human rights of all children are fully respected.

Education Equality will continue its campaign for its twin goals of equal access and equal respect for all children in our education system, regardless of religion. We hope that all political parties will support these goals and we can take another step in cherishing all the children of the nation equally. – Yours, etc,



Education Equality

Dublin 8.

Letter to Editor today in Irish Examiner

John Colgan has a Letter to Editor in today’s Irish Examiner about the ‘Rules for National Schools (1965)’.

The letter needs to be read in the context that these Rules are not a true statement of the current rules governing our National Schools as no codification has taken place since 1965.

The education minister’s mention of the “Rules for National Schools, 1965” as archaic on the cusp of a general election truly exemplifies the expression ‘kicking the can down the road’.

For while the rules have been in place for 50 years, they were, and remain, a detached, subversive piece of work, typical of the State’s biggest spending department, Education.

No act of parliament was made enabling them to extensively alter the preceding early 18th century legal arrangements.

They were never published as a statutory instrument under the Statutory Instruments Act, 1947, nor were they laid before the Oireachtas for the approval or amendment of the two Houses, which the 1947 Act required.

They were merely issued by the education minister of the day, Patrick Hillery. Parliament was sidelined by the department.

The back staircase in the department’s Marlborough St offices is called ‘Staighre na nEaspag’ — the bishops’ staircase — and clearly their hands are all over these rules.

Who else would put in the hands of a minister of a Republic words that religion is the most important subject in a school?

No minister and no secretary general has the competence to make such a judgment for society. Ever since, there’s been a slide away from the national school system as established in the 19th century. This system was approved by the then Catholic archbishops of Armagh and Dublin.

Then religious instruction and secular education were compartmentalised, allowing room for students of every faith and none to attend one school without being proselytised in the process.

Interweaving religion with secular subjects never had any place in the State’s vocational schools; no harm came of it.

The invention of the late 1980s, ‘religious ethos’ — which finds no mention in the Constitution — undermines pupils’ constitutional rights in publicly funded schools. The bishops have clout disproportionate to their negligible stake in our national schools.

The next governments needs to reclaim them.

Let us be a real republic for 2016.

John Colgan

Dublin Road Street


Co Kildare