Irish schools breach parents’ human right to keep their religious or nonreligious convictions private

Michael Moriarty, General Secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), has said that Irish schools are bound by decades-old rules around the teaching of religion that no longer reflect the reality of a rapidly-changing society. But one of the most fundamental breaches of human rights in our schools is not recognised or even understood.

In Ireland, many parents believe that their religious or nonreligious philosophical convictions are a private matter. They don’t see why any school or teacher needs to know the religious or philosophical convictions of their family. Their child has a right to an education, and they simply don’t see why they are obliged to reveal to the school their personal family belief system in order to access that right.

This happens because our education system has a history of evangelising children, and moving out of that framework and mindset is difficult. The right to private life is breached in denominational schools, and also in schools that are run by the State ETBs represented by Michael Moriarty, which are supposed to be an alternative to denominational schools.

This is an issue for families who have a religious faith, as well as for those that have nonreligious philosophical convictions. Many religious families pick and choose what teachings of a particular faith they abide by, and don’t want to give their children’s school details of what part of their religion that they reject. They don’t want to openly discuss what they see as a private matter.

If part of a school course is to share faith and belief experiences, then children will have to openly discuss the life stance of their family. The European Court has said the religions and beliefs are one of the intimate aspects of a person’s life. But in Ireland, your children are expected to share your personal family information with their classmates and their teacher.

No Irish Minister for Education has sought to protect this right to private life with policy or guidelines. In fact, the opposite is being promoted in the New Community National Schools. The Goodness Me Goodness Course in the Community National Schools obliges parents and their children to discuss openly their religious or philosophical convictions.

The supposed purpose behind this is that it nurtures the beliefs of the family. But there is no recognition or inclusion in the CNS for parents who want to keep their religious or philosophical beliefs a private matter. You either discuss openly the beliefs of your family, or you have to opt out your child from the Goodness Me Goodness You Course. There doesn’t seem to be any information from the Minister or the ETBs on how to go about this.

On page 14 of the GMGY Curriculum for Senior Class Overview it states that:

Beliefs and religions
This strand seeks to develop children’s understanding of religion and belief, for self and other, through a comparative curriculum of belief and religions. The strand encourages inter-belief dialogue and the sharing of personal belief experience (religious and secular) in order to enable children to learn ‘about’ and ‘from’ religion. The family plays an important role in this strand by informing the child about the beliefs and traditions of the home; the child then shares this perspective with their peers and listens to the perspectives of others. In this strand, parents are enabled to nurture the belief of their child and the school supports them in this process of belief-nurturing.

Parents and their children have a human right to private and family life. It is unfortunate that the Community National schools, which the Minister believes to be the way forward, do not recognise and support this human right. In Community National Schools, parents and their children are put in a position that they must reveal their convictions in order to belong to the school community.

The Primary School Curriculum seeks to bring all children to a knowledge of God, and to promote the moral and spiritual education of children through religious education. Why would any teacher or school see their role as promoting the moral education of the children from secular families through religion? It is time to overhaul the purpose behind the Primary School Curriculum, as it is not inclusive. It fails to recognise and promote the rights of all parents and their children.

The European Court had said that parents have a right not to reveal their religious or philosophical convictions in the education system. In Grzelak v Poland the court said that:

87. The Court reiterates that freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs comprises also a negative aspect, namely the right of individuals not to be required to reveal their faith or religious beliefs and not to be compelled to assume a stance from which it may be inferred whether or not they have such beliefs (see, Alexandridis v. Greece, no. 19516/06, § 38, ECHR 2008 …, and, mutatis mutandis, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, no. 1448/04, § 76 in fine, ECHR 2007 XI). The Court has accepted, as noted above, that Article 9 is also a precious asset for non-believers like the third applicant in the present case. It necessarily follows that there will be an interference with the negative aspect of this provision when the State brings about a situation in which individuals are obliged – directly or indirectly – to reveal that they are non-believers. This is all the more important when such obligation occurs in the context of the provision of an important public service such as education.”

Education and Training Boards are obliged to promote the human rights of their service users in Community National Schools. They are supposed to be the alternative to denominational schools. Community National schools need to take on board that there are parents who see religious and nonreligious philosophical convictions as a private matter. They need to recognise and be inclusive of these parents and their children. There are parents who don’t want any school or teacher to nurture their child’s religious or philosophical convictions, and this is something that schools should respect.

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