First review of Dail debate on Education (Amendment) Bill 2010

This is a review by our Lobbying Officer Conor McGrath of some of the key features of this debate from the perspective of Atheist Ireland, so that we can then go on to think about what sort of briefing we might want to provide at the Committee Stage.

On 13 and 14 October the Dail debated the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010. This was a second stage debate, after the first stage which was the introduction of the Bill in September. You can read the debate transcripts on the Oireachtas website:

Introducing the Bill, the Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan TD said that her Department is currently “assisting the Catholic Church in its deliberations on the possible divesting of patronage of some of its schools.” She suggested that VECs could be patrons of a range of primary schools – “denominational, multidenominational and non-denominational” – which would “welcome and respect all faiths and none …. In conformity with the wishes of parents”. She emphasised that, “The schools will also seek to cater for parents who do not wish their children to receive religious education in any particular faith.” VEC primary schools will be subject to different governance processes as is the case for existing VEC secondary schools. In common with existing primaries, as patron of a primary school, a VEC would appoint the chair and one other member of the board of management.

Fergus O’Dowd TD, who himself worked in a VEC school for 25 years, noted the changing demographics of contemporary Ireland and argued that primary school provision must keep pace with these social changes. In particular, he criticised the fact that negotiations between the Catholic Church and the Department so far have been conducted behind closed doors: “We would like that debate to be opened out into the public domain. One way of doing so is through the Oireachtas, in particular the Joint Committee on Education and Skills which could, prior to the taking of the Committee Stage of this Bill invite in parents, representatives of the different churches and none and other interested parties to tease out where we want to go in terms of patronage.” Mr O’Dowd drew on statistics about parental wishes which had been supplied in a Bill digest pack by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, showing that in a survey conducted for the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference 48% of respondents wanted to send their children to schools managed by religious bodies while 47% wanted their children to attend schools which either operated common religious frameworks or were controlled by religious denominations. His “personal preference for these [new VEC primary] schools would be that they should be multi-denominational”.

Ruairí Quinn TD questioned whether the VECs were really equipped to begin taking on primary education, and made a number of detailed points about what the ethos of a VEC would be and how it would be determined. Mr Quinn asked whether “faith formation inside school hours …. Will be extended to [primary] schools under VEC patronage”, and whether the Department had planned for the logistics and cost of offering multidenominational education in or out of school hours in these new primaries. He went on to query whether VECs should be regarded as ‘organs of the State’, and if so whether it would be constitutional for them to employ religion teachers. He also quoted approvingly from an academic article by Dr Alison Mawhinney in which the inherent problems resulting from primary education being delivered “through the medium of religious non-state actors” was explored. Mr Quinn asked whether sufficient attention has been paid to possible conflicts between our system of primary education and our commitments under international human rights conventions.

Mary O’Rourke TD singled out for praise the success to date of the Educate Together model, but was unhappy that their contribution had not been mentioned in the Minister’s opening speech. During the debate, Educate Together was also congratulated by Ulick Burke TD, Michael Moynihan TD, Mary Alexandra White TD, Joan Burton TD, and Paul Connaughton TD.

Ulick Burke TD argued that, “There may be minority groups that believe they will be omitted or suppressed for their religious beliefs. I can understand where they are coming from in this regard.” He called for “broad consultation between all the partners and interest groups in education”, suggesting that the Minister could “open up the window of opportunity that now presents” by establishing a forum of all stakeholders. Mr Burke went on to refer to the briefing paper which Atheist Ireland sent to members of the Select Committee on Education and Skills: “I ask that the Tanaiste and her officials should examine the concerns expressed by the Atheist Ireland group. Every Member received an e-mail from the latter in respect of its concerns regarding issues of human rights and also the management of schools. The Tanaiste must acknowledge that there may be a difficulty in this regard and respond to the concerns expressed by the group to which I refer in a positive way. I will say no more on the matter other than to remark that the Tanaiste must, when replying to this debate or on Committee Stage, deal with the concerns of this group and those of others.”

While Margaret Conlon TD believes that “parents, by and large, are not obsessed with patronage”, she did go on to say that, “It is important the schools will respect and welcome all faiths and none. They will seek to provide religious education during allotted times for the main represented faiths in a school.” Michael Moynihan TD asserted that the religious patronage model “worked well for us in the past” but then went on to acknowledge that the Catholic Church’s control “was a difficulty that could not be overcome in the not too distant past.”

James Bannon TD regards the Bill as “the stepping stone to … an educational utopia…. This is the opening salvo in the separation of church and State in the educational sector” He recalled the 1831 establishment of a Board of Education, the aim of which was “to provide a free non-denominational primary education system, in which children of all religions would be educated together in secular subjects, an aspiration championed today by the multi-denominational and project schools.” While initially popular with parents, this model was then defeated by the churches setting up their own denominational schools.

Olwyn Enright TD stated that while “there has been a good degree of debate on the diversification of patronage … the overall issue of patronage and whether we are happy with the system in general has not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny.” She went on to say that, “The Government refused some time ago to have a national forum on patronage, as Fine Gael, other parties, teacher union bodies, etc., have called for. Surely a system that has evolved since 1831 could need reform and need debate. We must look at that.”

Welcoming the Bill, Mary Alexandra White TD (Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills) stated that the new VEC primary schools will welcome and respect all faiths and none and seek to provide for religious education during the allotted times for the main represented faiths within the school. They also cater for parents who do not wish their children to receive a religious education based on any one particular faith.” She noted the ‘Goodness Me, Goodness You’ multi-belief programme which is currently being taught in some of the pilot VEC primary schools: “It is designed to cater for children of all beliefs and of none, with content appropriate for both theist and non-theist perspectives in keeping with the commitment to provide belief specific teaching in accordance with the wishes of parents. The programme also provides for belief-specific modules to be delivered to children whose parents take that option.”

Jimmy Devins TD argued that so far as the teaching of religion in the new VEC primaries was concerned, potential problems could be resolved through “early liaison with parents who choose to send their children” to those schools. Joan Burton TD asserted that, “All schools should respect all religions, as well as people who have an ethical foundation that is not necessarily expressed through a particular religion.” She suggested that, while it would be a decision for “the VEC, the school board and the parents”, the new schools could consider holding faith formation classes in the school premises but after school hours. Finally, she expressed a hope that “the diverse ethnicities and faiths of parents and pupils will be represented on VEC boards of management.” Arthur Morgan TD welcomed the Bill as a step towards the separation of church and State in education: “To allow denominational schools the discretion to disqualify some children from admission on the basis of religious belief, or lack thereof, is not sustainable in a modern, diverse 21st century Ireland. It is a scandal that this discrimination has been allowed to continue for so long…. In a perfect world there would be no religious instruction during school hours in the classrooms of a secular state.”

Paul Gogarty TD (chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills) noted concerns expressed by Educate Together that a new model of VEC primary schools will serve as a justification for refusing future Educate Together primaries. He spoke at length about the issue of religious provision in primary schools: “It would be difficult to know whether a majority would vote against religion in schools were a referendum held tomorrow. It is certainly the case that a large number of people want to maintain religious instruction, and this right is protected under the Constitution. However, a growing number does not want anything to do with religion or is from a minority faith. Multi-denominational education is important in this regard. Deputy Quinn has on many occasions raised the issue of atheists, agnostics and those who do not have any religious affiliation. These individuals also have a right to educate their children in an ethos that respects their points of view. It could be argued that atheism is a religious belief system in its own right. At some point in the future we will have to decide whether belief systems should be an intrinsic part of our education system. A referendum, whether held tomorrow or in five years’ time, would be divisive and could allow fundamentalist views to be expressed forthrightly. It is not the kind of subject that leads to violence on the streets but it certainly would alienate a significant number of people. It would not be constructive if hurtful comments were made.” Mr Gogarty later stated that, “My personal, as opposed to political, view is that perhaps we should grab the bull by the horns and phase out religious instruction. While a school may continue to celebrate its Catholic or multi-denominational ethos, religious instruction would be given outside school hours.”

Olivia Mitchell TD supported the idea of wider consultation on changes to the education system: “A mechanism needs to be put in place to determine how existing schools pass into State ownership from clerical ownership. We must determine how existing schools can morph from faith-based schools under religious patronage to Educate Together or VEC schools. There is urgency in this regard. Fine Gael has called for a national forum to decide how to move forward. It does not matter what it is called; we need something other than the ad hoc approach that seems to obtain at present.”

Paul Connaughton TD does not “have a hang-up with who is the patron of the school”: “I accept that swathes of people have gone away from organised religion and do not attend mass, a matter which is entirely their own business. On the other hand, they would still like their children to be educated locally at a Catholic school…. However, the House must also ensure those who may wish to have their children educated at another denominational or non-denominational school have all facilities and an even playing pitch provided to them.” Finally, for Seymour Crawford TD, this Bill “does not have major relevance or cause problems for my constituents in Cavan-Monaghan” because despite the “extremely valuable work” done by the Catholic Church in the past there is by now an increasing demand for non-denominational schools.

 

Conclusions:

This has been an important and useful debate, with many positive features Atheist Ireland can now build on as the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 moves through the legislative process. There are a number of points to note for action:

  • Atheist Ireland will write to all those TDs who made use of the briefing paper we supplied in advance of the debate, and to those who stated their support for protecting the human rights of non-theists;
  • Now that the Bill moves into its Committee Stage, Atheist Ireland will prepare briefs on various aspects of the Bill for all members of that committee, and will seek to discuss our concerns with the Minister or her officials;
  • Our original briefing paper dealt in detail with the concept of designating the boards of management of VEC primary schools as ‘organs of the State’. Ruairí Quinn may well introduce amendments to the Bill on this point at Committee Stage, and Atheist Ireland will endeavour to provide him with useful relevant material;
  • Many TDs may be assuming that if a school is formally non-denominational, that in itself means that it is essentially neutral as regards faith formation during school hours. Atheist Ireland will produce a briefing paper which makes clear the reality that even non-denominational schools under the patronage of the Minister can still choose to operate the integrated curriculum with a specifically Catholic ethos; and
  • A number of TDs have raised the desirability of some form of consultation with patrons and other interested groups. Atheist Ireland will write to both the Minister urging her to establish such a body, and to all members of the Select Committee on Education and Skills asking that they could assist in opening up this debate initially through inviting bodies to give evidence to the Committee.

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