(3/7) Composition of the NCCA Course Committee

Atheist Ireland has used the Freedom of Information Act to examine more than 20 years of public records, describing how the Religious Education Curriculum at second level was created and delivered. What we have found is Church and State tightly entwined, in a process that overtly breaches the constitutional rights of parents and children. Documents obtained under Freedom of Information, reveal how this situation was arrived at, with the full knowledge of the constitutional rights that were being breached by both Church and State bodies.

 

Composition of the NCCA Committee

As part of the development of the State junior cycle curriculum for Religious Education, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) formed a Religious Education Course Committee (Post Primary). The purpose of this Course Committee was to develop a curriculum for a Religious Education course that would be suitable for all citizens, of any faith or none. Despite the proposal that the course be suitable for all religions and none the Committee was drawn only from the Management bodies of schools, the Schools Inspectorate and the Department of Education. The Management body of schools consisted of representatives from Catholic and Protestant churches. There were second level VEC (now ETB) schools and colleges but the teaching of religion in these schools was/is also in control of the Catholic and Protestant churches in Ireland.

Control over the rationale, aims and objectives of the proposed course was handed to those bodies who were already in control of the State funded school system. No minority faith or non-religious body were invited onto the Committee. The image below is an extract from the Minutes of the Course Committee meeting on 22nd February 1993 and the full set of minutes is available here.

Minutes of Course Committee Meeting from 22nd February 1993

Minutes of Course Committee Meeting from 22nd February 1993

Notwithstanding the aims of the Framework for Assessment, the composition of the NCCA Course Committee was bias against non-Christian representation, resulting in commensurate difficulties with how the course was rolled out in schools. Specifically, the NCCA made every effort to ensure that Christian denominations were represented on the Course Committee, while at the same time denying any presence on the committee at all, to any of the non-Christian perspectives in Ireland. This was the case even when explicit requests for representation from non-Christian groups were made, and where such non-Christian groups were associated with a larger portion of the Irish population than the Christian denominations represented on the Course Committee.
For example, on 10th January 1995, the Association of Irish Humanists explicitly requested representation on the course committee. In a letter to the CEO of the NCCA they stated:

“As the Association representative of the largest minority in Ireland, which is the non-religious minority – we would expect to be represented on this course committee currently developing a secondary school programme for a religious education course …”

Humanist Letter to NCCA on 10th January 1996

Humanist Letter to NCCA on 10th January 1996

Despite their explicit request, the Association of Irish Humanists were not permitted to provide a representative onto the Course Committee by the NCCA. After some further correspondence, this resulted in the Association of Irish Humanists bringing the issue to Niamh Bhreathnach, the then Minister for Education. On the 8th October 1995, the Association of Irish Humanists wrote to the Minister, stating:

“Just as the major religious groups represented on the committee will be responsible for their particular section, so we expect to be responsible for the Humanist, non-theist philosophy which, we understand from the NCCA, will be part of the revised religion course.”

Humanist Letter to Minister for Education on 8th October 1995

Humanist Letter to Minister for Education on 8th October 1995

The Association of Irish Humanists were not the only non-Christian group denied representation on the course committee. On 16th October 1996, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order wrote to the CEO of the NCCA offering to contribute. On 25th September 1997, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Republic of Ireland also wrote to the NCCA, complaining about the treatment of a number of religious denominations. This included Bahá’í, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Shinto and Jain denominations.

Bahá’ís Letter to NCCA on 25th September 1997

Bahá’ís Letter to NCCA on 25th September 1997

On 7th October 1999, there was also correspondence to the NCCA from the Dublin Buddhist Center, seeking to correct inaccurate descriptions of the teachings of Buddha, which had been included in the early work on the curriculum by the NCCA Course Committee. However, even after these explicit requests from non-Christian groups, the attendance sheet from the Course Committee meeting on 19th November 1997 shows that the groups afforded formal representation were the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church. The Association of Irish Humanists continued to be denied representation, even though the number of non-religious citizens in Ireland was greater than the number of Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist citizens combined. In fact, on 30th November 1994, the NCCA had produced its own research based on Census information to demonstrate these demographic considerations, but still excluded all non-Christian representation.

Representation on the NCCA Course Committee on 19th November 1997

Representation on the NCCA Course Committee on 19th November 1997

On 31st May 2000, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Republic of Ireland wrote again to the NCCA, complaining about the treatment of minority non-Christian faiths within the new curriculum. On 15th June 2002, the Watch Tower Society of Ireland also wrote to the NCCA, offering to improve the areas of the curriculum that referred to minority faiths, including their own. However, even while none of these groups were afforded any representation, when the Methodist representative stepped down from the Course Committee, the NCCA made every effort to ensure that a Methodist representative always continued to be included.

On the 8th June 2008, the Dr John Harris of the Board of Education at the Methodist Church in Ireland, wrote to the NCCA, stating that:

“I have enjoyed the two meetings that I have attended and have been most impressed by the commitment and expertise of the members. However, I feel that I am really not equipped to make a proper contribution to the work of the committee. I do not myself have any direct experience of teaching the RE exam course. As a result I feel that it would be in everyone’s best interest that I would stand down.”

Methodist Letter to NCCA on 8th June 2008

Methodist Letter to NCCA on 8th June 2008

So while the Association of Humanists were making every effort to obtain representation on the Course Committee, up to and including escalating the matter to the Minister for Education, the NCCA were refusing representation to the Humanists but including a Methodists representative, who by his own admission was not equipped to contribute anything.

It is also instructive to notice the response from the NCCA when Dr Harris stepped down in June of 2008. Despite Dr Harris making it clear that he had nothing to contribute, the NCCA wrote again to him in December of 2008, welcoming him back onto the Religious Education Course Committee. The Humanists and all other non-Christian religious groups continued to be excluded.

NCCA Letter to Methodists on 10th December 2008

NCCA Letter to Methodists on 10th December 2008

In fact, the NCCA continued to insist on a Methodist representative on the Course Committee, despite the apparent best efforts of Dr Harris to be excused from participation. This resulted in Dr Harris writing again to the NCCA on 23rd March 2009, in an attempt to figure out what the NCCA were trying to achieve with respect to membership of the Course Committee.

Methodist Letter to NCCA on 23rd March 2009

Methodist Letter to NCCA on 23rd March 2009

There is a clear bias here in excluding all non-Christians groups, even though the NCCA knew that they represented larger portions of the Irish population than the Christian groups who were included. Several non-Christian groups were very clearly extremely keen to contribute but continued to be excluded, while the NCCA made strenuous efforts to include Christian denominations, apparently even against the wishes of those Christian groups. In this context, we might wonder then how all of these Christian denominations deliberated with each other on the Course Committee.

The Protestant denominations had some strange contributions to make. During a meeting of the Course Committee on 2nd May 1997, it was agreed that Protestant students should be discouraged from studying the practice of other Protestant faith positions. It is unclear why a public body in Ireland, developing a State curriculum for all Irish children, would be engaged in inhibiting children of one Protestant denomination learning about other Protestant denominations.

Extract from Course Committee Minutes from 5th February 1997

Extract from Course Committee Minutes from 5th February 1997

The contribution from other public bodies who were represented on the Course Committee is also interesting to note. For example, David Hegarty was the representative on the Course Committee from the National Parents Council (Post Primary). On 20th April 2009, he wrote an email addressed “Dear Fellow Committee Members” to his colleagues on the Course Committee and expressed a number of views about the direction of the curriculum. Despite the course being intended for students of all faiths and none, his initial concern was that students should be able to refute “false secular arguments which denigrate religious beliefs and practices”.

Hegarty comments on secularism from 20th April 2009

Hegarty comments on secularism from 20th April 2009

Mr Hegarty went on to express concern about an “indifferentist notion” that “all religions beliefs are somehow OK”. It was My Hegarty’s view that “a moments informed reflection” is all that is required to “realise that this is not so”.

Hegarty comments on indifferentist notions from 20th April 2009

Hegarty comments on indifferentist notions from 20th April 2009

Perhaps it was the lack of any non-Christian representation on the Course Committee that allowed Mr Hegarty to feel at liberty to express some concerns about “Catholic pupils whiling away the time learning about yoga and Mohammad”. It seems that even into 2009, the Course Committee were not fully accepting of the requirement that the curriculum was intended for students of all faiths and none. Maybe this is not surprising, given how the NCCA went about composing the membership of their Course Committee. No concern about the Constitutional and human rights of minorities were raised.    Hegarty comments on yoga from 20th April 2009

Hegarty comments on yoga from 20th April 2009

In fairness to Mr Hegarty though, he was able to explain to his Christian colleagues on the Course Committee, where he derived his views from. Specifically, Mr Hegarty noted that at no point in the Gospels did Jesus instruct the apostles to “go ye therefore and learn a bit about all religions”. No doubt, Mr Hegarty is scripturally correct on this point.

Hegarty comments on other religions from 20th April 2009

Hegarty comments on other religions from 20th April 2009

Since we can see how the Christian denominations and public bodies that were invited to participate on the Course Committee engaged with each other, we might also wonder how they addressed issues relating to non-religious perspectives. One hint is available from a document written by the NCCA on 19th April 2010. As part of the roll out of the curriculum, issues raised by teachers were gathered along with proposed responses and resolutions noted by NCCA. The response to the question on “secular humanism” does not inspire confidence.

Issues raised and proposed NCCA resolutions from 19th April 2010

Issues raised and proposed NCCA resolutions from 19th April 2010

Atheist Ireland has obtained additional documents under Freedom of Information, which further describe how the State Religious Education curriculum produced by the NCCA was compromised and how the Constitutional and human rights of minorities was ignored.

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