There is a growing clash between the constitutional and international obligations of the State and the predominantly denominational nature of our primary education system.
Our Constitution states very clearly:-
The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.
However, there are currently approximately 3,150 National Schools in Ireland, 99% of which are under the patronage of denominational patrons and are not owned by the State. The Education Act 1998 copper fastens the religious nature of these schools and the Education Welfare Act 2000 obliges parents to have their children in recognised programmes of education.
This structure is quite out of line with international experience. In the European nations the pattern is for a majority of schools to be publicly owned and inclusive in ethos with an option for parents to choose denominational or private education if they so wish.
This unbalanced structure has led the State into a position where it has been left open to the charge of funding and supporting an overwhelming monopoly of denominational provision whilst making inadequate provision for an inclusive alternative. As recent Census results show, a growing number of families no longer define themselves in the traditional religious identities of old. As a result, many parents are sending their children to schools that must under law uphold a religious ethos that conflicts their conscience or lawful preference. This is clearly not in the public interest. It is damaging to the system itself and is contrary to the stated educational aims of the Department of Education and Science, the Government, the Education Acts and the Constitution. It is also an affront to numerous international conventions on the rights of citizens and children to which Ireland is a signatory.
Educate Together proposes that the State works with existing providers to develop a national network of schools that are legally obliged to actively support the religious identity of all citizens. This would appear to be the most responsible approach that the State can take in the present circumstances.
- That the Department prioritises supports for school providers who undertake to open and operate schools that work under a legal commitment to respect and actively support the identity of children irrespective of their social, cultural or religious backgrounds and are prepared to submit their operational practices and procedures to independent review by such statutory bodies as the Equality Authority.
- That the Planning Section of the Department works with providers to ensure that no family in the State has to travel more than 30 minutes in the morning to access a school that actively supports their religious identity.
There are no specific budgetary implications to these proposals. Any costs involved will be absorbed within the general Primary Capital Building Programme or programmes for the rationalisation of existing accommodation. However, lack of action on this issue could lead to considerable costs in the event of legal action by parents.