I am a parent of four children. My eldest is twelve years old. With second level education an imminent consideration, I recently began to take a look at the school options available. The closest second level school to my home is Castleblayney ETB College, less than a ten minute walk away. When I asked a few simple questions about the Cavan-Monaghan ETB approach to religious education, I found the broad ETB organisation to be entirely clueless about their own policies. At every level, up to and including the national leadership, I found them to be disrespectful of minorities and ignorant of their legal and human rights obligations.
As as atheist, mine is a minority community in the Cavan-Monaghan area. Under Circular Letter 73/74, all Cavan-Monaghan ETB schools are obliged to include religious worship for students. This puts a particular onus on the CMETB organisation to take specific measures that allow atheist and secular minorities to be respected too. The ETBs claim to be the inclusive alternative to denominational schools and I wished to discover if they were any more inclusive than schools under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church.
Section 15.2(b) of the Education Act requires schools to be accountable to their patron (not to the Department of Education and Skills or even to the public interest). The obligation of the school is to apply the policies of their patron. As such, rather than contact the school I wrote directly to the CEO of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, Mr John Kearney. I didn’t ask him to do anything or to change anything. I simply asked him four straightforward questions about the current policies of CMETB. These questions were:
Is faith formation in your schools kept separate from the State Religious Education course?
Can students who opt not to study the State Religious Education course select an alternative subject instead?
When children opt out of religious activities, such as group prayers or presentations at the school by religious votaries, how are opt out students managed while these activities are ongoing?
Can you describe how you protect the human rights of your students and their parents, as per your obligations under the Human Rights and Equality Commission Act?
I don’t think that these are unreasonable questions. Neither do I think that it is unreasonable to expect straightforward answers to these questions from a public body with responsibilities in this area.
Unfortunately, Mr Kearney as the CEO of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, was unable to answer and so he sent me to the CMETB Corporate Services Department. The public servants in the CMETB Corporate Services Department were unable to answer any of my questions either and so they sent me to Mr Michael Moriarty, the General Secretary of the ETBI in Dublin. Mr Moriarty wrote back to me to say that he was “very much aware of the issues raised” but his awareness did not extend to any knowledge of the answers to any of my questions. In fact, he indicated that nobody within the entire ETB organisation has the faintest idea what their own policies are in this area. Specifically, he told me that “This is an undoubted challenge for the ETB sector” and that they were “evolving to meet the needs of a growing secular society”.
The de facto admission from Mr Moriarty that ETB schools do not meet the needs of secular citizens today, will not surprise anyone who has tried to have their philosophical convictions in secularism or atheism respected by ETB schools. In fact, there is a large volume of anecdotal evidence from the experiences of parents, indicating that the ETB organisation knows exactly what the answers to my four questions are. They simply don’t wish to provide the answers in writing. Some of this evidence is included in the recent Atheist Ireland report on Religious Education at second level.
The Atheist Ireland report outlines how the NCCA and the Department of Education and Skills have both been very clear on the legal reasons why the State Religious Education course must remain neutral. That is, it would be a breach of both constitutional rights and human rights if the course moved beyond the objective study of religion as a phenomenon, into faith formation with respect to one particular denomination. They have also been very clear that the course must be optional. Despite this, many ETB schools merge the State Religious Education course with Roman Catholic faith formation and make it compulsory for students. This means that State-funded bodies are spending public money to indoctrinate Irish children into a specific religion, against the wishes of their parents. That is a clear breach of both the Irish Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights. No wonder neither Mr Kearney nor Mr Moriarty were able to adhere to their legal obligation, to outline how CMETB protects the human rights of students and their parents.
When I complained to Mr Moriarty that his response was entirely inadequate, he told me that he would be “meeting with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to see what supports they can give ETBs” but that “these matters take time”. By their own admission then, the ETB organisation is currently seeking external help and support so that over time, they can try to figure out how to stop abusing the human rights of little children. The CMETB organisation is a public body that is accountable for their human rights abuses to a Board, largely comprised of county councillors. I have also contacted all of those Cavan-Monaghan County Councillors and not a single one has managed to answer any of my questions either. This is how “inclusive” the Cavan-Monaghan ETB organisation is of minorities.
The law must be changed to force such bodies to respect the human rights of all citizens, since the Board of CMETB are clearly unwilling to do that without being forced to. The Schools Equality PACT campaign seeks to achieve this legal change and it deserves the support of everyone, especially Roman Catholics of good will, who don’t believe that their faith requires them to discriminate against non-Catholics.
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