Irish Human Rights Commission recommends change to the Education Act 1998 to protect the rights of minorities.
The Irish Human Rights Commission in their Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee have recommended that Section 15 of the Education Act 1998 be amended to provide for modifications to the integrated curriculum to ensure that the rights of minority faith or non-faith children are also recognised therein.
Ireland is due up before the UN Human Rights Committee of the 14th and 15th of July. The UN Committee have asked Ireland what is it doing to protect the human rights of minorities in the Irish Human Rights Commission.
Here is part of the IHRC’s Submission to this UN Committee :-
Recognition of Rights of Children of Minority Religions or Non-Faith Backgrounds
176. The issue of the rights of children and parents to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the State-funded education system has been the subject of focused debate during the reporting period.
The IHRC conducted a wide-ranging review of the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in the State relating to the protection of human rights in the education system culminating in its May 2011 report, Religion and Education: A Human Rights Perspective.
Its overarching recommendation was that in order to achieve human rights compliance, the State should ensure that there is a diversity of provision of school type within educational catchment areas throughout the State which reflects the diversity of religious and non-religious convictions now represented in the State. Diversity of provision would ensure the needs of faith (including minority faith) or non-faith children in schools can be met.
177. Separately, the Minister for Education and Skills established a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector in March 2011, which held a number of meetings with stakeholders and the wider community, and received and considered written submissions from a large number of interested parties, including the IHRC. The Advisory Group published its report in April 2012. The publication of the proposed W hite Paper on Pluralism and Patronage in the Primary Sector is awaited. Thus while a number of welcome initiatives have been introduced by the State, the pace and scope of reform in those areas agreed with education partners, such as the divesting of patronage of some schools has been slow.
178. The IHRC’s 2011 report made recommendations based on the assumption that the State will choose to retain the current patronage model. Given the majority of patrons being religious denominations, it noted that significant modifications would be required in order to meet human rights standards and made a number of recommendations, which were:
The clear definition of terms, such as “denominational”, “multi denominational”, “inter denominational”, “non denominational” or “other” school, in primary legislation, Ministerial regulations or be determined by reference to the recognition of such schools under the Education Act 1988;
Specifically, that section 15 of the Education Act 1998 be amended to provide for modifications to the integrated curriculum to ensure that the rights of minority faith or non-faith children are also recognised therein. The IHRC recommended here the State take sufficient care that information and knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner with the aim of enabling pupils to develop a critical mind with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere which is free of any misplaced proselytism;
That the Minister for Education and Skills codify and review the Rules for National Schools, to ensure that the human rights standards set out in its report are upheld. This could be further reviewed in the future in the context of increased diversity in school provision;
Where diverse provision of education does not exist in a school’s catchment area, that consideration be given to move formal religion classes to the start or end of the school day. While not ideal in terms of separating children, it was stated that this might provide greater accommodation to parents of minority faith or non-faith children seeking exemption. If sufficient numbers of students sought the exemption, provision could be made for a parallel class in ethics and philosophy, or other minority religions as demand dictates at the same time;
That the State seek to ensure that all patrons, in schools funded by the State, are sensitive to the impact that the manifestation of religious beliefs in the school may have on children of other faith or non-faith backgrounds. In this regard the report recommended that those children should never experience exclusion or segregation in the school or in any way be undermined in their own faith or other philosophical convictions. Guidelines and examples of good practice, together with the allocation of necessary resources to implement such good practice should be developed in tandem with the enhanced complaints mechanism being recommended to Government. The IHRC recommended that for their part, those denominational schools who have other faith or non-faith children as pupils should take steps to guard against any inadvertent indoctrination or proselytism of those children by teachers;
That the State should continue to seek to promote religious harmony and understanding between groups, including those of a secular viewpoint. Further, the report recommended that it should ensure that indoctrination and proselytism does not take place in State funded schools, possibly through reviewing the remit of Departmental Inspectors to take account of issues concerning religion and education;
That there be an expanded Ombudsman body with a remit to consider complaints
concerning exemption procedures or any unwanted exposure to indoctrination or proselytism. Further, the report recommended that the remit of Schools Inspectors should include inspection of how religion classes are conducted in schools, regard being had to the effectiveness of exemption procedure being put in place by schools further to the recommendations in this report;
That in ensuring the rights of school children in accordance with maturity, the report recommended that the views of most second-level students and arguably some older primary school students in relation to the exemption procedures or any perceived encroachment on their personal religious or philosophical convictions, be taken into consideration, in addition to the views of their parents;
That the education of teachers not include compulsory content that conflicts with the rights of such teachers. The report recommended that any improper encroachment on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion of teachers should thus be avoided;
That there be an appropriate amendment to the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2012 to ensure respect for the private life of teachers where their private life does not improperly encroach on the rights and freedoms of others.
179. Pending the introduction of the W hite Paper referred to there have been some moves towards divestiture of patronage. The IHRC welcomes the increase in the numbers of multi-denominational primary schools, achieved in part through opening new schools under existing patrons, and in part through the creation of a new model of primary school patronage, the Community National School. In relation to complaints mechanisms, the Department has begun work on the development of a Parents’ Charter. However, no formal complaints procedures have been prescribed by the Minister for Education and Skills, pursuant to section 28 of the Education Act 1998, for the hearing and resolution of grievances relating to matters other than admissions, suspensions and expulsions. The IHRC, in its 2011 report, noted that the existing complaints procedures do not cover all primary or second-level schools in the State, such that the situation pertaining in schools not covered by agreements between management bodies and teachers’ unions, is unclear.
180. Concerning the issue of access to schools, as outlined by the State in its Replies to the List of Issues, draft legislation and regulations have been introduced with a view to ensuring that ‘the way schools decide on applications is structured, fair and transparent’, by virtue of which a school’s enrolment policy will be required to include a statement ‘setting out the position of the school in relation to its arrangements for upholding the constitutional right of students not to attend religious instruction’. In relation to restrictions under equality legislation, there have been no proposals to amend sections 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Acts 2000-2012 but the Government is proposing to modify section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011 to address the rights of access to employment and promotion for student teachers, teachers and those in the health sector.
181. The Equality Authority in its Submission to the Department of Education and Skills on the Department’s Discussion Paper on a Regulatory Framework for School Enrolment, recommended that the definition of ‘characteristic spirit’ in the Education Act 1998 should be amended to prevent a school from defining its characteristic spirit in a way that enables it to exclude any student on any of the nine discriminatory grounds provided for under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2012, and that any application of the exemption provided for under these Acts or any proposed amendments or regulations must be assessed to ensure that they cannot result in a breach of the ‘Race Directive’ and/or contribute to ethnic or racial segregation in schools.
182. In its recent Judgment in O’Keeffe v Ireland, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR was of the view that by failing to provide for an effective complaints mechanism as against teachers, the State had failed in its obligation to protect the applicant from acts of sexual abuse to which she was subjected in 1973, while a student in a State-funded primary, in violation of its obligations under Article 3 ECHR.
183. The State has recently taken a number of positive steps to fulfil its obligation to protect students in primary and post-primary education from sexual abuse, including the provision of a comprehensive (albeit as yet non-statutory) complaints mechanism. Complaints which do not relate to abuse complaints are, as noted, otherwise the subject of locally agreed procedures which direct complainants away from State authorities to Boards of Management.
Main areas of concern
The IHRC recommends that the issue of compulsory constitutional judicial and other declarations be reconsidered by the State to reflect religious and other beliefs.
The IHRC recommends that legislation be introduced to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion, belief or other status and that in tandem, sufficient choice be afforded to parents and children in school catchment areas.
The IHRC recommends that modifications be made to the integrated curriculum through legislation to ensure that the rights of minority faith or non- faith children are fully recognised therein and that the Education Act 1988 and the 1965 Rules for National Schools be amended to fully reflect the State’s human rights and equality obligations.
The IHRC is concerned that there are school catchment areas where there is no parental schooling choice other than a school with a religion or ethos at variance with that of the parents of a child and/ or the child. The IHRC recommends that consideration be given to requiring formal religion classes to be held at the start or end of the school day.
The IHRC recommends that an independent, accessible and uniform complaints mechanism be introduced and the role of School Inspectors be enhanced.
The IHRC recommends that section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2012 be amended to protect the rights of access to employment and promotion in the fields of education and health.