Secular option crucial to inclusive education system

Primary schools must detach from religious teaching if the education system is to provide for the preferences of many parents. By Joseph Galvin.

Recently the Irish Times carried out a poll asking parents whether they would favour the Catholic Church relinquishing control of the primary school system. A majority of 61% replied yes. Currently, over 90% of Ireland's primary schools are run by the Catholic Church, a balance that must be redressed if it is to reflect the wishes of parents. 

Society has changed a great deal since the 1971, when Fianna Fáil took the decision to give the Church a huge degree of control over the education system. Back then, Ireland was approximately 96% Catholic and, as such, the decision made some degree of sense.

It no longer does. There has been a large increase in the percentage of civil marriages in recent years, from 5% in 1996 to 23% a decade later. These figures signify that the dominance of Catholicism is beginning to wane, particularly among young adults. In addition, the percentage of people in Ireland who declared themselves Catholic decreased to 86% in the 2006 census.

Indeed, many of those who declare themselves Catholic do so out of habit and are largely apathetic to the religious system. According to a survey by the Catholic Bishops Conference in 2004, only 63% of declared Catholics in this country attend mass on a weekly basis. Other polls have since estimated that the figure is as low as 44%.

In other words, the influence of the Catholic Church continues to wane. It is reasonable to expect that the education system should reflect these changes in society by offering more widespread multi- and non-denominational education.

Minister of Education Batt O'Keeffe's commitment last Friday to do just that, albeit on a pilot basis in ten urban areas, is a step in the right direction and was welcomed by opposition parties, as well as the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin. 

However, it is still true that many parents still favour religious education for their children. The blanket secularisation of our education system would undoubtedly leave many parents disenfranchised; instead, we should be looking for a system that offers choice. Unfortunately, the current system does not offer that. The first step that needs to be taken, however, is fundamental; the place of religious instruction on the national curriculum needs to change.

In the Irish Times recently Michael Cronin argued in favour of replacing religious instruction with philosophical/ethical instruction.

"Philosophy has a centuries-old tradition of ethical reflection stretching to antiquity, and ethical issues have been an enduring concern of philosophers from Aristotle to Judith Butler," said Cronin. "Schooling our children in [ethics]...encourages free, critical inquiry. It is the development of this habit that explains the full importance of the teaching of philosophy."

Ruairí Quinn, Labour's spokesman on education, agrees that ethical instruction has a place. "I think there should be ethical instruction [in our primary schools]," said Quinn. However, he stressed that there is a difference between ethical instruction and multi-denominational religious instruction which has as its aim what Quinn calls "faith formation". In his opinion, there is room for both.

Certainly, schooling in moral behaviour can't be too troubling. In a study released in October 2009, Kai Horsthemke found that increased violence in South African schools paralleled with a "decline in moral values". Horsthemke highlighted the need of the education system to turn to religion, community and the common good of nature as a way to counteract that decline. 

He concluded that the latter, what he described as humane education, was the best and most reasonable way to counteract the "moral decline" of young people. Why? Because it engaged rationality and had a provable grounding in reality. Horsthemke's "humane education" is essentially synonymous with ethical education.

Up until now, it was the domain of religious instruction to teach moral behaviour. Increased instances of anti-social behaviour are often blamed on the waning influence of the church on our youth, as alluded to by Horsthemke above. Our children, say believers, need to fear God.

A fundamental problem with this tenet, however, is that religion is not a universal concept. Indeed, it can be an exceptionally alienating concept to non-believers.

In contrast, ethics are universal. We each are affected by ethical concepts and, through teaching ethics in our schools, we can give our children the opportunity to think about that most fundamental of questions; how ought we to live? 

It would also tackle the view that, in teaching our children morality through religion, the church is being exceptionally hypocritical given the consistent moral failures within its own ranks. The Murphy and Ryan reports highlighted the gross abuse of our children by the church and raised serious questions over the moral authority of the church. Much of this abuse took place within Catholic run educational institutions.

It is difficult to justify instruction in the belief of a specific religion (in our case Catholicism) being a compulsory part of the national curriculum given these recent findings. Ethical instruction, however, would be far easier to justify and far more inclusive. It is a simple change but it would tackle most of the same moral issues that religious instruction aims to cover, as well as many more besides.

While organisations such as Educate Together offer multi-denominational primary education in Ireland, the system remains dominated by the Church. Educate Together continues to expand but runs only 56 schools throughout the country, and those schools are based in urban areas. The waiting lists are prohibitively long for many, and applicants have simply been unable to get access for their children, even when children are registered soon after birth. 

The waiting lists show that there is an increasing desire for multi- and non-denominational education and it is the job of the Department of Education and Science to provide for this demand. The Labour party, for its part, is committed to supporting Educate Together should it get into government. Ruairí Quinn said that Labour "pledged to recognise Educate Together as a patron at secondary level". Senator Ivana Bacik has committed her support to Educate Together's Portobello school start up group.

The government themselves have stated the importance of accommodating diversity within the education system. Speaking in 2006, Mary Hanafin said: "In recent years we are responding to the wide diversity of needs within the education is important when ensuring school provision, that there is accommodation of difference, diversity and tolerance across the system, while all the time maintaining the high quality of teaching and learning in our schools." 

Why, then, has a more determined effort not been made in the intervening four years to provide a more balanced and diverse system?

As it stands, teacher training courses still require their students to study religious instruction no matter what the student's belief. Every course in this country is still Christian run and each is funded by the state. So the state, nominally secular, pays for our teachers to learn how to teach according to Christian beliefs. This undoubtedly causes prospective students who do not hold such beliefs discomfort, and may even turn them off teaching outright.

"There is an issue about the compulsory requirement to take religious instruction in [teacher training colleges]," agreed Quinn. In his view, a teacher who is not religious should not be "forced" to play a role in a child's "faith formation". Our prospective teachers, too, need a change in their curriculum.

Again, however, it cannot be forgotten that there still exists a huge desire for religious education in Ireland. Speaking to a Catholic school management conference on February 6, President Mary McAleese lauded the contribution of the Catholic Church to our education system, calling the investment by the Church in education "legion and unquantifiable".

She continued: "[O]ur country’s journey from poverty to prosperity was shortened by the religious orders that brought high-quality education to every corner of the country. In each generation, we have seen the gradual leavening impact of their work as access widened and achievement levels soared, bringing an inexorable tide of qualifications and of confidence which have been individually and collectively transformative."

High praise and, indeed, her statement has an element of truth to it. The Catholic Church laid the foundations for education in Ireland and, for all its failings, Ireland's socio-economic progress would have been slowed without it. We should not be looking to remove the Catholic Church from the education system, at least not yet. The choice for a religious education should be there for parents should they so desire. However, the curriculum needs some fundamental changes.

Ireland should aim for an inclusive, non-alienating national primary curriculum. Introducing ethical instruction, whether in addition to or in replacement of religious instruction, would be a major step in achieving that goal. Removing the choice of religious instruction from the system altogether, however, could disenfranchise parents and remove choice.