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Ireland moves to unthrone RE in the school curriculum

18 December 2015


"I will repeal": Jan O'Sullivan arrives for a meeting at Dublin Castle, in 2014

"I will repeal": Jan O'Sullivan arrives for a meeting at Dublin Castle, in 2014

AN “ARCHAIC” rule that prioritises religious education in Irish schools, and effectively excludes children of minority faiths from many schools under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church, is to be repealed in January.

The Labour Party Minister for Education in the coalition government, Jan O’Sullivan, who is a member of the Church of Ireland, said that the 50-year-old Rule 68, which states that religious education is “by far the most important” in the overall school curriculum, will go.

“Rule 68 is archaic. I will repeal it. It may have survived for 50 years, but in January it will be removed, along with any other rules that don’t speak to the diverse and welcoming nature of our modern school system,” she said.

The rule has been blamed by many parents who have said that, in recent years, they had to provide a baptismal certificate for their children to gain entry to some state-funded schools — 90 per cent of which are Roman Catholic.

“We want our children to develop a strong, ethical spirit, and an understanding of their place in the world; but we also want them to learn many other things. We want them to be physically active and fit, but we devote less than half of the time to PE than is devoted to religion. We understand that an early appreciation of science can engage and astound our children in wonderful ways, but science education also gets less than half the time that religion does in our curriculum.”

Mrs O’Sullivan said that the Equal Status Act, which allows schools to discriminate on religious grounds, would be amended to prioritise local children, regardless of their religion; but the change would still afford protection for minority-faith schools, most of which are run by the C of I.

“We must build in protection for the small number of minority-faith schools which serve dispersed communities,” she said. Effectively eliminating minority-faith education would be a departure rather than a progression towards a pluralist educational system, she said.

A poll of 1000 people published last week found that almost 85 per cent of those questioned believed that the education system should be reformed to ensure that no child was excluded on the basis of his or her religion. It was commissioned by Equate, a new campaign group seeking equality for children.

The group’s director, Michael Barron, said that Equate would organise a coalition to campaign for changes, including moving faith-formation classes to the end or the start of the school day. This, the group says, would allow families to opt in to faith formation, as opposed to forcing families to opt out. It also identifies a need in rural areas for what it terms a “community diversity protocol” to ensure that the rights of all children attending a school are protected.

The reforms would mean that all children could experience equality in their local school, Mr Barron said, and no child would be isolated because of identity, family background, faith, or non-faith.

Responding to the Minister’s announcement, the general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA), Fr Tom Deenihan, said that he could understand the rationale behind such a decision. “Ireland is served by a plurality of primary-school patronage models, and it makes no sense for the State to compel schools of no religious patronage, ethos, or denomination, to teach religious education,” he said. The CPSMA was concerned, however, he said, that there was an intention to remove denominational ethos from the education system.

The Iona Institute has described the Education Minister’s announcement as “another attack on the rights of faith-based schools”.

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