This week, CEO of Educate Together Paul Rowe gave a briefing to the Council of Europe on the increasing inequality in Irish education. On the invitation of Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Nils MuiÅ¾nieks, Mr Rowe outlined the ways in which the Irish Education system continues to deny the intellectual and religious rights of children in schools.
Educate Together last made representations to the Council of Europe in 2006 under the Framework Convention on the Rights of National Minorities and as a result the committee of that convention made a series of recommendations to Ireland in relation to the need for greater availability of “non-denominational schools”. However, the situation that Educate Together described in 2006 has dramatically worsened and Mr Rowe urged the Council of Europe to re-iterate, with added urgency, the recommendations it made in 2006.
Said Mr Rowe:
“Since 2006, Ireland’s population has continued to grow and diversify rapidly in terms of religious and ethnic identities and there has been a generational transformation of attitude to the role of religious bodies in education and to their role in civic society. In Educate Together schools any faith formation classes take place outside the compulsory school day as voluntary facilities run by parents. This ‘faith formation outside school hours’ model, ensures that children and families are treated equally in school. No child is placed under any pressure as a result of their family’s religious identity and there is no time period during which ‘opting out’ is necessary, as children from majority, minority and non-faith backgrounds remain with their classmates during the entire school day.”
What is needed: a national network of equality-based schools
Educate Together has become the fastest growing section of Irish education over the past decade. Although inundated with demand for its schools, Educate Together receives inadequate support from government. In reality, the state will only allow new Educate Together schools to open where gross increases in demographic demand are evident or, in circumstances in which either a religious patron gives the State a building or vacant State buildings are available. This leaves huge areas of the country where parents have no choice at all.
Educate Together is encouraged by the present government’s published commitment to build a network of 400 non-denominational schools by 2030. However, it remains to be seen whether or not the current Government has the resolve to expend the resources needed to end this unacceptable discrimination against children in the Irish education system.
Educate Together supports calls for the prohibition of religious discrimination in admissions to state-funded schools. Recent censuses have demonstrated a rapid increase in the percentage of the population that describes themselves as having “no religion” and this now constitutes the largest minority segment of the population. At the same time, over 95% of all primary schools are owned by religious bodies and are legally obliged to prefer their religious outlook in all aspects of school life. The State continues to uphold laws that allow this overwhelming monopoly of school provision to prefer baptised members of their community in school admissions.
In locations where there is competition for school places, increasing numbers of parents feel that they are forced to baptise their children for no other reason than to access a school place. In the past two years, a number of mass movements have arisen to address these issues. Education Equality, Equate, Atheist Ireland and others have organised public protests, media debates and other forms of advocacy. The independent Ombudsman for Children has surveyed children affected and has also raised this fundamental issue.