Let’s educate together: A humanist approach to education

The majority of primary schools in Ireland are still under the patronage of the catholic church, despite the fact that a significant of the population do not share this belief. Educate together schools provide a humanist alternative to this, where children are not segregated or ostracised because of belief, and where religion is taught in a historical context which highlights the comparison between world religions. By Justin Frewen.

Growing Diversity

For over two centuries, the patronage of primary education schools in Ireland has been almost exclusively the sole preserve of the Christian churches. While this may have been justified in the past as merely representative of the religious beliefs of the Irish population, this argument no longer holds true. Irish society has undergone momentous changes, particularly over the past few decades, which has led to an increasing demand for new models of schooling based on multi-denominational and non-denominational frameworks.

One clear indication of the evolution in religious attitudes became apparent following the tabulation of the 2006 Census results. 186,000 people declared they had “No religion”, thus making adherents to “No Religion” the second largest ‘belief’ group after Roman Catholics. A further 70,000 people failed to respond to this question. In 2008, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin noted that although 90% of primary schools in Dublin fell under his patronage, perhaps as few as 50% of parents were actively interested in their children having a Catholic education.

However, as things stand, 98% of national schools are denominational with almost 92% (3,027 of 3,302) of these being Catholic. These schools are legally permitted to have a religious ethos, including integrating religion into all school subjects and the general school day. Moreover, the Equal Status Act 2000 [Section 7-3(c)] legally entitles discrimination in pupil entry to uphold their particular religious ethos. The majority of parents have to send their children to a denominational primary school. This discriminates against parents of a minority religion or no religion who have no local option and is financed by all the citizens of the state irrespective of their own beliefs.


Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector

In response to these social realities, the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn, formally launched the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector in April this year, declaring it “a key education objective of the Programme for a National Government 2011-2016”.

The Minister has repeatedly emphasised the necessity of ensuring that changes to the current system should be cost neutral. Although perhaps hardly surprising, given our current economic plight, this will clearly make it far more difficult to implement significant changes in the primary school patronage system.

The Forum has three major objectives. Firstly, it will decide how the primary education system can optimally respond to the demands for a suitably diverse number and range of national schools catering for all denominations and no denomination. Secondly, the Forum will evaluate the practicalities of transferring or divesting school patronage of individual primary schools in communities where appropriate or necessary. Thirdly, it will outline the manner in which the transfer/divesting process of patronage can best be achieved nationally.

A three person independent Advisory Group panel, comprised of Professor John Coolahan (Chair), Dr. Caroline Hussey and Ms. Fionnuala Kilfeather, was established to administer and manage the Forum. This panel will analyse and evaluate the responses, views and submissions both from the educational groups specifically invited to participate in the Forum as well as those of other interested groups and citizens.

The time scale for the Forum’s work is a tight one. Interested parties who wished to make submissions had only until 7 June to do so, a mere seven weeks from the formation of the Forum on 19 April. The Advisory Group will produce an Interim Report by early November and organise a Conference later in the month to facilitate open discussion on its findings. The final Forum Report will be submitted to the Minister by the end of 2011.


Educate Together

As a concerned party in this process, the Humanist Association of Ireland prepared a submission for this Forum. Humanists believe parents of minority religions and no belief should be able to choose a school that respects their right for their child to be educated without being instructed in other beliefs. Religious belief should be a private matter and the public arena, including schools, should be strictly neutral in this area. Schools should promote social cohesion and an open society, based on shared human values, and genuinely inclusive and accommodating towards the religious and non-religious requirements of those they serve.

Schools that educate children of many and no religion together provide an opportunity for people of all faiths, and none, to co-exist peacefully and fruitfully in an environment which values the beliefs and philosophies of all its pupils. Schools of the Educate Together (ET) group do precisely this and by adhering to this model respect the requirements of both the religious and non-religious, without affecting the human rights and educational entitlements of all. Schools adopting an ET approach allow for the provision of religious instruction outside school hours.

While the Irish State recognises ET schools, less than 60 such schools have been established in 35 years. This illustrates the inadequacy of the current system, which requires local ‘self-start’ of ET schools by parents with limited time and resources. In short, the ET type school is the right concept but its development has been seriously impeded given the current national education structure.



It has been argued that parents who do not wish their children to undergo religious instruction should simply remove their children from these classes. However, this can potentially lead to minority belief pupils feeling excluded, experiencing reduced self-esteem and being seen as different, as their beliefs are not recognised or regarded as less important than the ‘mainstream’.

Religious belief or an ethical life stance without religion are statements about who the person is and can become an issue of segregation and sectarianism. While there is obviously segregation with respect to education in different academic subjects, such division is not a determinate in the identity of a person. At the same time, religious and other groups should be permitted to avail of school facilities outside school hours.

Instead, schools should promote social cohesion and an open society, based on shared human values, and genuinely inclusive and accommodating towards religious and non-religious requirements of those they serve, including tiny minorities. Otherwise, we risk a tyranny of the majority, where powerful or well organised minorities can insist on their needs being accommodated and disregarding those of others.


Religious Instruction and the State

Religious instruction should not be the State’s responsibility. If it is, the State will have to get into the business of determining which of the over 360 religions existing in Ireland today qualify as a religion for support and which do not. The State should not be the judge of what is a bona fide religion for the purpose of support. Religion is a private matter and its validity is not and should not be dependent on the endorsement of the State.

Furthermore, teacher education should not include religious instruction as a subject. Religious education, which looks at different religions and belief systems, should be established as a subject in its place. It is unacceptable, on educational grounds, to prioritise religious instruction for trainees over academic subjects such as science, modern languages and so on. In the Teaching Council study of Mary Immaculate College, it was found that trainees spent four times as much time being instructed in religion – not a statutory part of the curriculum - than in science, geography or history. Teacher training should emphasise improving the standard of trainee teachers in the statutory curriculum to improve pupil educational achievement.


‘Belief Blind’

To optimise diversity, schools should be ‘religion-blind’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘belief-blind’. Schools should have neutral enrolment policies, accepting and treating all pupils equally regardless of their cultural and belief background. Pupils should not be separated for any subject during the school day that pertains to how a student defines themselves such as with respect to their race, religion, language spoken at home etc. These issues relate primarily to their parents/guardians and heritage and it is wrong to separate pupils on the basis of features of their parents. Children should be free to think about religion also.

Humanists are not opposed to religious education. However, it should not be religious instruction. Instead, pupils should be introduced to the wonderful tapestry of different belief systems through the study of comparative religions and non-religious philosophies. Schools should not give special recognition to any religion, but discuss the special dates, tenets and special activities of different religions and secular beliefs.

Religious education should not be limited to the sum of the beliefs of the present pupils and parents. It should be a specific subject or have the status of a subject. Pupils should not be told the positive (or negative!) features of the doctrines of their own religion or non-religious beliefs during the school day. For example, education about religions and non-religious belief systems could be done in an historical context and in a comparison between world religions.