New guidelines for Catholic ETBs must involve more than revising sectarian headcounts

Education & Training Boards schools and colleges are presented as the alternative to denominational schools in Ireland. The ETB sector is in competition with Educate Together for the patronage of new second level schools. But Atheist Ireland has discovered that many ETB schools have a Christian and Catholic ethos and are no different than denominational schools.

For more than a year now, Atheist Ireland has been engaged in discussions with the ETB sector, including through Freedom of Information requests. Despite the assurances from the ETBI and the Minister for Education Richard Bruton, we have found the ETB sector to be secretive, unwilling to engage, and promoting the aims of the Catholic Church.

Minister for Education planning new guidelines

This issue is relevant at present because the Department of Education is putting together a new Circular Letter, with guidelines in relation to the teaching of religion in these ETB schools. It is not generally understood that ETB schools have religious instruction and worship and many of them operate with a Catholic ethos while at the same time claiming to be inclusive and the alternative to denominational schools.

The old Circular Letters on religion in ETB schools have been around since the 1970s. Nearly all ETBs have Catholic religious instructions and worship, the remainder are Church of Ireland. The new Circular Letter is meant to reflect the fact that Ireland is now much more diverse with difference religions and beliefs and the student population reflects this.

But from the Documents that we have got so far under the FOI Act, it seems clear to us that nothing will change practically in relation to the teaching of religion in ETBs. The only thing that will change is the wording. The Circular Letter will use language that can mean anything and this will result in no practical changes for minorities on the ground in ETB schools.

It seems clear to us that the ETBI don’t want anything significant to change either, they have consulted and agreed with the Catholic church regarding the teaching of religion in ETBs. They have also organised for the Catholic Church to have input into the ethos of the ETBs.

Freedom of Information Act

Atheist Ireland has used the Freedom of Information Act in order to get some insight into the ETBs. Asking questions of the ETBs got us nowhere. We did try to engage with the ETBs before using the FOI Act, but to no avail. All this information should be readily available and up on the websites of the ETBs, ETBI and their schools.

We will soon be publishing details of the information that we have got under the Freedom of Information Act.

When we requested information outside the FOI Act we mostly we got no response. When we did, it was contradictory responses that made no sense. So we were left with no alternative but to use the FOI Act. The ETBs are charging us an average of €500 each under Section 27 of the FOI Act for the information we requested. Only one ETB has not charged us so far and that is Dublin and Dun Laoghaire. Cork ETB asked for the largest amount. They requested €4,600 to process the request.

From the Documents that we have got so far under FOI, no minorities were consulted regarding the new Circular Letter on religion in ETBs. Over 50% of second level schools are under the patronage of the Catholic church. Despite this, the Catholic Church has been consulted and got a say in the delivery of religious education and the ethos in ETB schools.

Briefing memo from the ETBI

We have recently received a briefing memo from the ETBI about their plans for religion across their schools in the future, and it is not encouraging with respect to the promised reform of the sector. This memo is a response to the issues raised during Atheist Ireland’s engagement with the ETB sector. For example, one parent has spent many months asking simple questions about the current religion classes in their local school, only to be given responses like this:

“… the ETB sector is in an evolutionary and consultative process with regard to religious education in schools. In this respect, your perspective on these matters is valuable in terms of informing our thinking.”

That is, when asked about the current religion policies being operated within schools today, the ETB response seems to admit that a problem exists and that the sector needs to evolve to fix it, but only makes vague promises of undefined solutions to come on unknown dates. This is not an acceptable response to parents seeking information about the ongoing education of their children.

In terms of the consultative process, the ETBI has arranged meetings with the Roman Catholic Church in Maynooth but has refused offers to meet with Atheist Ireland. In the most recent Briefing Memo though from Michael Moriarty (General Secretary, ETBI) we have discovered a little more about their plans. The briefing memo states:

“Although ETB schools are all multi-denominational, historically some may have catered for a student body that may have been majority Roman Catholic. This was reflected in the schools’ approach to RE and characteristic spirit. However, ETBs recognise that the religious/belief identities of the students attending their schools are becoming increasingly diverse. To cater effectively for this new reality, ETBs are currently engaging with ETBI in a national process looking at core values and characteristic spirit. Part of this process will address the questions of how ETB schools address the religious and belief diversity of the communities they serve. ETBs welcome this process and await the findings and recommendations that will come from it. The Department of Education is also developing a Circular that will guide the delivery of RE in ETB schools”.

Worryingly, the plans of the ETB sector seem to be doubling-down on the mistakes of the past. Instead of providing an education service that is suitable for children of all faiths and none, the ETB sector is now admitting that they often decided to provide a Catholic education system because most children in their schools came from Catholic families. The core of their new strategy now seems to be that they will update their sectarian headcount.

The Right to Opt Out

The essential public service of education in Ireland should respect the human rights of all parents and children to be free from religious discrimination. The Toledo Guiding Principles have been established by an international team of respected educationalists and human rights lawyers, in order to describe what such an education service should look like.

At present it is very difficult to opt out of religion in ETB schools. From the Documents that we have got under FOI, we now have evidence that shows that religion is mandatory in most ETB schools. If parents do manage to opt out their children from religion they are left sitting in the back of the class. No other subject is offered.

There is simply no difference between most ETBs and second level schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church. In many ETB schools Relationship and Sexuality education is taught in the Religious Education class. This means that RSE is delivered in state schools through the lens of the Catholic Church.

We will soon be publishing details of the information that we have got under the Freedom of Information Act.

We want the new Circular Letter from the Department of Education to permit us to opt out of religion class and worship and choose another subject. This is a reflection of our right to be free from religious discrimination. We also want RSE education to be separated from religion classes and delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

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