A Small Event in Rural Ireland
One family’s story in accessing their local ETB school.
Guest post by an atheist parent
We are lucky enough to have landed in one of the world’s more favoured places, good scenery, nice beaches and dog walks and a good active friendly community, taking part locally is as easy as staying aloof (actually easier). We have good local village shops, a nearby town with all the main services, pubs that hold you in and fortunately for us a senior and under age hurling club that gives our child a social and sporting outlet through the summer months only matched by the equally excellent Rugby club that picks up the task in the winter, this in brief is our community, only our son was born here, but we are at home.
Last year we found ourselves in receipt of much of the benefit that comes from such a community, as my wife worked her way through the tough treatment and surgery that comes with breast cancer, the community were there for us. When I had to work, when she was in hospital in faraway Cork or when the treatment regime was at its most challenging – the community was there, having our son over to stay, supporting us with offers of lifts, meals and simply a little chat, “let me know if you need anything” was not a hollow offer. People may not know how much it means when a man quietly engages another man over how he is doing whilst standing at the edge of a hurling pitch- the quiet gentle offer of support is what makes the word community mean something.
It’s a community that works and at its heart is an excellent school, a school that is personal and supportive, it is an all-encompassing part of the life of the child and engages us as parents in fundraising and community activates. My wife joined the PA as secretary and we considered ourselves actively involved as many parents would wish to be. We all like the school, but as atheist parents we have had to engage with it in a way in which most parents will not.
As with the vast majority of schools this school, paid for by the State to serve the entire community, must first serve its patron and of course its patron comes from that other important part of our community – the Church. The Church serves a vital purpose for many of my friends and neighbours, they worship the god they believe in, they meet up, hold various coming of age ceremonies, get married (if straight) and in time say goodbye to each other. It’s not my Church, but I recognise how important it is to many and respect the place it has for them whilst finding much of the wider Churches behaviour and its ideology deeply flawed and harmful.
Sadly that respect is not mutual, the Church, through the local Bishop, is patron of our school and as with the majority of its schools it uses this privilege to inculcate belief in the supernatural and faith. It dominates the RE class to an extent that for a non-believer the class is more damaging than good. Its prayers are said and its icons and messages adorn the walls, the curriculum and workbooks reflect its mission – the Church owns the community’s state funded school and you access it on those terms.
On this basis, we have over the last 7 years, built up a good working relationship with the principal and staff. The prayers and other overtly religious works stopped coming as homework. Though the insidious curriculum frequently came through (at least for us) as far as possible our opt outs have been respected. However, this respect has meant for our child endless wasted school time sat in a RE class reading a book or at the back of the church, days spent lolling whilst the faith is formed, in staying away for whole days or in my returning to collect the child because the Bishop has that morning decided the school must go to church for a holy day. The respect within the bounds given to staff to exercise it has been forwarded by those at the chalkface, the patron body feels no such burden.
Through our frequent interventions and mutual experience I believe the school has had to confront much unquestioned practice, even if on the surface little has changed and it is still unable to serve all its pupils equally or provide RE where the ‘E’ has real meaning.
It is a good and happy school and next year we leave it behind.
Last year we decided to start viewing the next school. Starting second level is a challenge for any child and we wanted to make the transition as easy as possible. We have choices in the schools he can attend but these choices are not real choices, our local school is around a mile away in a neighbouring village, the next nearest is in the local town and the next nearest we would have considered for him at the other side of that town. Geography, traffic and our shift patterns mean that realistically our local school is our best and only option without ongoing problems of access. So we felt lucky that in talking to other parents we had good reports. Obviously not all were singing the same happy tune, but on the whole this seemed a school worth trying to access and it was with this in mind we joined other parents on the open evening and had our hopes broken.
The school is good – it has resources and activities that suit our child’s interests and support in place for our child who is Dyslexic, the school is there to serve the wide community of villages in our area. As children grow their community grows and the school obviously intended to serve that community well. The only problem was that unbeknown to us we were not part of the school’s community, we were not Christian and at best could achieve guest status in this Catholic community school. The school served a Christian community and this message adorned its walls and was repeated in its constant reinforcement of its ethos, its chaplaincy and its curriculum.
The school has an excellent learning support room and structures for those opting out of Irish, it was in this room that I was first told we would not be allowed to opt out of RE, told that this was a “Catholic school”. It’s funny how easily that phrase could be turned in to “a school for Catholics” but perhaps that level of honesty would make an ugly truth too plain for the speaker, who is no doubt also a good person, good people try not to think that way. We toured the school, saw the excellent facilities that it was becoming more and more obvious we would not be accessing and eventually ended in a presentation for the large group of parents in the main hall. We enjoyed a presentation where a welcome was extended frequently and where the Christian ethos and chaplaincy were mentioned equally frequently. Part of that welcome included the celebration of yearly mass and all a community could expect to help their child bond as a reassurance that this school worked for its community. I counted the number of times that minority faiths and non-believing family were welcomed, it mounted up to a grand total of Zero – this was our community school, but we were not in that school’s community.
I approached a senior member of staff afterwards, perhaps I was flustered and perhaps I was even letting some of my disappointment and anger show (you get angry when it is your child being left out), but I was trying to be reasonable. I asked again about our legal right to opt out and for the second time was told it did not exist, this school was different, it was exempt and anyway, it’s not really an issue is it? I mentioned the lack of a welcome extended to minority faith and non-believing people, but in all honesty cannot remember the response, I just wanted to leave. I shared my concerns with some parents, with whom I am friends, on the way out. They had not heard what I had heard, or at least they had not noticed what was not said. They were happy. This community school was their community school and of course maybe I needed to look at the bigger picture. I left, but I did remember one comment, I had been advised to contact the chaplain, my misunderstanding around RE and the way the school came together under its ethos was my misunderstanding, it could be cleared up.
We decided to go ahead and tour the school at the other end of the local town. Challenges of access could be overcome and this was now the nearest school that we wanted to consider. From the start everything was different, this was a Catholic school – the crucifixes were up on the walls and a massive wooden cross adorned the large hall (if Jesus returns as a giant this school is ready for him). However this school is known to serve the small but growing ethnic minority population in the town. It was a Catholic school- but it was inclusive. I stopped counting the number of times inclusiveness was mentioned, it seemed churlish, out of a small group of Catholic schools this was the one that we could feel confidence in, and inclusiveness ran through every talk. The facilities were good, the staff friendly (as they were at the last school) and just as dedicated. This community was apparently one that considered us members.
I withheld asking about the RE opt out, deciding to wait until the end of the talk when we were given the opportunity to peruse several displays and served tea by some either extremely polite or well bribed fifth years. I waited for an opportunity to catch one of the senior staff I had identified, I wanted time to lay out our situation without a surrounding group and I found myself waiting under the cross – a beautifully polished shiny cross that stretched to the vaulted ceiling and was covered in post it notes. Like yellow butterflies. At that point a teacher wandered by, with pride she very kindly explained in answer to my question that the post it notes contained the names of deceased loved ones who the children wished to remember, it was part of a wider project. I thought this a great opportunity, how did a school with inclusiveness as a core principle meet the needs of children from minority or non-faith families – there couldn’t be a clearer test?
“I told you” she said “we are an inclusive school, they all did it.”
This was inclusiveness in the state financed education system, your child will be included in all the Christian activities – inclusiveness was a lovely word five minutes earlier. I used to like that word. I briefly expressed my disappointment, dealt with the confused and now not so inclusive look, finished my tea and left. It had become obvious that there was going to be a battle ahead to gain our legal, though limited rights, in this Catholic state school system, but the plunge had been too deep in that moment for me to begin fighting it. There are other schools, but for various reasons we had not put one in third place and even if we were now to redo the list and drop our first two choices, how would anything be different and why the hell should we? If I was going to have to fight for our sons rights I would do it in our son’s first choice local school, one mile up the road and blithely unaware that its perception of community was going to have to grow up.
I had been invited to meet the chaplain, I decided to wait until the new academic year and call the school asking to meet two senior members of staff instead. I thought a year would just about give me time to have my requests formally rejected, to work through the Board of Management onto the Equality Board and finally, if necessary, to court. I hoped a year would be long enough to get our right to opt out and equal treatment in accessing another class or other resources. I was wrong. It did not take a year, it took an hour. More correctly a quarter of an hour – the rest was Gravy, good Gravy as it happens. If you have got this far I would like to tell you how it happened.
The outcome of this long tale was never going to be a secular school, we were never going to get a secular education free of church influence and neutral in its religious education through the travails of one family. It is worth stating that I would love my son to take part in religious education, I consider it vital. I don’t want it to go away, I just want it to be an education. Many parts of the present RE course are just that and much is not. All of it is delivered through a Christian ethos.Humanism is not on the syllabus, though diligent teachers may work it in. This is a Christian education about religion. Atheism, where it is mentioned, comes under the heading’ challenges to faith’, the curriculum acknowledges others, but it does not respect them. At no point have I ever imagined I would leave the meeting with the school to the sound of either crucifixes coming down or multi- and non-faith symbols going up, these state schools are Catholic, the school I was going to was definitely Catholic and changing that is a battle fought outside of its walls. But there was something about this Catholic school that I had missed, how I do not know, perhaps because it was not apparent. This Catholic school is in fact also an ETB. Funny that.
From the Seventies through a series of amalgamations and movement the local school has emerged as a joint ETB and Catholic (now apparently down or up graded to Christian) school. A quick note on the change from Catholic to all-encompassing Christian, were I a non-Catholic Christian I might find it hard to notice how this change has become apparent. I did mention that given that it had happened I presumed the yearly mass was shared between the local Catholic and nearest Church of Ireland establishment, the light dig was met with a wry smile- so with apologies to the staff who explained this significant event, I will continue to refer to it as the Catholic run State school, because it is. The ETB within the present prejudiced system is as close as we are going to get to a school that has us in mind, because the ETB is meant to have everyone in mind. This community school was not just meant to serve the Catholic community it was meant to serve the whole community, but of course the ETB does not operate like that. It is bound by the same laws that insist children receive a faith based education and of course this ETB was, like others, a joint venture where all the expenses come from the State and the ethos comes from the Church. Be interesting to see that the other way around, but that’s not happening, suck it up.
So I rang the school and made my appointment, it came through quickly. I had a day to prepare before a morning meeting and the realisation was dawning that knowing you have a right and being pissed off is no substitute for knowing you have it and being able to prove it. I swatted, the teachers would have been proud. I started by printing of a copy of the ETB Equality and Diversity policy, it’s all-encompassing and does not miss out diversity of religious belief. I thought at that point I had enough without having to go to legal rights, though in the belief that I was going to be told no anyway, I printed these off. I then discovered that the Equality and Diversity statement was not pertaining to schools, they have their own, it’s diluted and we seem to have been left off. If you need to know your legal rights go to Teach Don’t Preach, there everything is explained and a standard letter containing all your rights for opting your child out of RE is available to be printed off. I printed one off – when they said no I wanted them to say no to everything – I was on a journey, this was the first step. I wrote out a long list of questions and came up with a cunning plan, not a trap but a tactic. In fact it was less cunning than obvious.
I wanted to discuss how the school would support my child with his Dyslexia – part of this support is an option to opt out of Irish, the not cunning but obvious part of my plan was to discuss this first, get the precedent for the opt out and the schools framework for dealing with it out in the open and let them explain how positively they responded to an opt out situation. Obviously, when it came to opting out of RE the service would need to be the same or equivalent, doing otherwise would be a clear breach of equality. This plan was bolstered through my contact with Teach Don’t Preach. Coincidentally the ETBI, the national body of ETB had come to recognise that as an organ of the State it was subject to the Human Rights and Equality Commission Act – this realisation had come about only over the last few days thanks to the work of members of Atheist Ireland and Teach Don’t Preach. Though I eventually did not need this recourse, I am grateful to them for their ongoing work, change is happening and in no small part that is due to these people. I am a happy member of Atheist Ireland, but I recognise where the complex and arduous work is being done on my and everyone else’s behalf by several dedicated volunteers.
My meeting plan was that once we had finished discussing these supports (and this was not a throw away subject, the learning support if not in place would have been a deal breaker on its own) I would explain that it was our desire to exercise our right to opt out of RE and move swiftly on to discussing the options available. My high aim was that our son would leave the class and join a different class, no more sitting quietly in the midst of a lesson he was not part of, no more wasted time. Of course I did not expect to get to this high point, I expected to be rejected on the opt out, to furnish my legal rights and go home and wait for the formal letter I would request setting out the rejection of those rights so I could move to the next inevitable step. It’s good to be wrong.
I went to the meeting.
This is the main point of my tale – and as I have reflected on my actions and the events I have slowly come to realise something, I was right but I was also wrong. I won’t do myself a disservice, I could have been entirely right in many parts of the country and quite likely this county. In other schools parents will find themselves stymied at the first step of opting out, most will not even know they have the right and the school is not going to tell them. But in this case I was wrong. I had left the open evening at the school with the impression that the teachers I spoke with were not only working for a bad system, but were in cahoots with it and were intentionally misinforming me. They were not. As rough as it was and as outrageous as the message seemed, they were telling the truth, or at least the truth as they saw it. The non-welcoming aspect of the school’s presentation was not designed to alienate myself or others, it was obviously thoughtless but it was not intentional. The fact is that for many people things are the way they are because that’s the way things are and unless asked to think about it they often do not realise there is anything to think about. Yes mass is not an inclusive annual event, it’s obvious to me, it’s probably obvious to many. But it is, in fact, not obvious at all too many others, it needs pointing out. It probably should not, but it does. I was wrong to think that I was going to sit down with people dedicated to denying me my legal rights, they certainly would have liked to persuade me to stick with RE and some of the reasons were positive, but in examination faulty. I don’t know what conversations have happened since my previous visit and I don’t know what was discussed between my making the appointment and attending it. I do know that this issue has made the news again and again, I have even been interviewed myself. But between those two dates something changed at our local school, they were wrong about the facts, they knew it, although they did not know by how much and that was something we discussed. I was wrong about them. The system is broken and the people working within it often know that but they know little of the effect it has on people like us. There are undoubtedly teachers who see it as their duty to impose their religion on young children and this they do with all the support they require. I know they exist but they are not representative. Teachers, most pupils will surprised to learn, are as complex, thoughtful and open to reason as the rest of us and of course subject to the same hurdles that will undermine that reasoning process, different levels of faith and confidence in its truth being a main culprit when it comes to their work.
So I followed my plan, stated my request, listened to an explanation of why I was wrong about the RE course, restated my request and got everything that I had aimed for, with the complete support of the school and without further debate. I was a bit surprised but hid it by pretending to faint (I kid). We used the rest of the time discussing why the RE impinged on my philosophical position and the Christian prism it was taught through became apparent when we centred on morality. Morality in the lesson the RE teacher delivered was book-ended by the Ten Commandments. We talked about this, but I believe it was in saying this that the teacher moved closer to understanding my point of view. With my permission I answered a few questions on my atheist reasoning and of course death and loss. (Death, loss and my way of dealing with it arise frequently in these situations, believers do seem to have a “no atheists in foxholes obsession”. It’s a time when their faith kicks in for them and they find it difficult to understand how we cope). We discussed other aspects of opting out, it is not simply the RE class you also opt out of all forms of faith formation and evangelisation. The annual Mass was a good example of this. The teaching staff spoke about how inclusive it was – the whole school comes together in school time for Mass in the local church, students go up to the alter and say prayers and the Mass takes its usual form of prayer sermon and worship, as with the cross and its post it stickers at the other school, it’s inclusive because everyone does it. I doubted that this was as inclusive an event as they imagined but I made a suggestion that would enable me to permit my son to attend. During the Mass a teacher, an older child or even I could go to the front and give instead of a prayer a brief description of how we are good without gods, how although we respect others beliefs we do not see any need for a god nor any evidence one exists and how it’s entirely possible to meet all the positive virtues one needs without recourse to belief in a god. The reasoning given for rejecting having the whole school told there was probably not a god as part of an official school event and with the authority that brings were the very reasons why I do not want my child to join a worship event to a god under the same circumstances. I think this conversation moved us forward and I have suggested that thought be given to an event which is actually inclusive of the whole school.
So I was wrong, but I could easily have been right and in schools up and down the country I would have been. Saying that this outcome is unusual but should not be misses a vital point- this should not be happening at all. Parents should not be negotiating with the State financed education service over the level of indoctrination they are allowed to opt out of, we should not be wishing that a neutral religious education class and school environment were available, it simply should be.
I started out writing about community, we use the term as a definer all the time, rural community, gay community, sporting community etc. All these communities overlap and overlay each other they can be as broad or narrow as you wish or as others perceive them – in reality there is only one community we all belong to and all those others are just brief descriptive conveniences, when the State serves the demands of one part at the expense of the rights of others it unbalances us all, we all lack equality- it’s wrong, but being wrong can be great because you get to make it right.