Primary education is publicly funded; religious groups own 96% of primary schools, and 90% of parents have no choice about school denomination. We cannot accept this in the modern, multicultural society Ireland has become. We are educating our children against a backdrop of concern about admissions and ownership/patronage. The former problem, whereby unbaptized children cannot sometimes get a place in their local school and are forced to travel, is immediate and many lives are being affected. Over the coming 5 years, this ability to discriminate – allowed under the Equal Status Act – will likely change under the next government. This will be very welcome for those who do not yet have children of school-going age.
For those who already have children of school-going age, their chief concern is patronage. If we focus on admissions, there is a danger we focus less on this issue, which is the underlying problem. Even if a child is admitted to a school in spite of not conforming to the faith of that school, he or she will have eight more years in a religious-run school. This is the reason that the Iona Institute, the conservative advocacy centre, focuses on the number of places in schools. If school places are increased, there will be less focus on divestment, and – as conservative groups want – this rights issue will be forced under the carpet.
It is important that this does not occur, for the sake of our society, our children, and our teachers, who seem to be the forgotten group in all of this. Only 49% of them ‘teach religion willingly’, only 9% believe the primary school should prepare pupils for sacraments, and 80% think parents should have an option of whether a child goes to a school with a religious ethos or not. Our teachers are working in a system where their own morality is questioned and their own employment choices are limited. For them, too, divestment is crucial.
But recent attempts to address school patronage have proved largely unsuccessful. In 2012, The Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector proposed numerous solutions in relation to religion in the education system. Their overall idea was that the divesting of Catholic-run schools to multi-faith and non-denominational managed schools should only occur where there’s a clear demographic need. It said that when divestment is identified as justified, ‘a calm, reflective process should follow’. That process has resulted in two schools being divested to Educate Together since 2012. All of the UN, Council of Europe, and several human rights groups have criticised the pace of this reform and have called for faster and broader reforms.
Politically, the manifesto of the most likely leading coalition partner from March, Fine Gael, commits to adding 300 non- and multi-denominational schools by 2030. These are small steps that will lead to divestment of about 10% of our schools. But 10% seems a very small number when we consider that the children who will attend these schools are not yet born, and that the parents of these children have just entered adulthood, having grown up in a chiefly secular society.
Fine Gael’s plans clearly lack ambition and do not reflect the wishes of 63% of you, who responded to a poll saying that the next Government should reform this. The divestment of 10% of schools by 2030 is not reform. Modern Ireland should have an education system where nobody must sign up to values in which they do not believe: we can get that if we try. At this election, we can use our vote to stand up for a pluralist society, to promote greater choice for parents, and to achieve greater equality for children. We need to make this issue matter to our candidates, and make them answerable for it.