Professional Development Service for Teachers won’t answer about in-service training with Catholic Church

Atheist Ireland recently used the Freedom of Information Act to ask some questions of the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), which is a State-funded body that provides in-service training for teachers, about its relationship with the Catholic Church when providing such training for religion teachers.

The PDST gave us incomplete, misleading, and contradictory answers to our requests. When we appealed the responses under the Act, the PDST changed track. They told us that they were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, because they are a private body, and the Office of the Information Commissioner agreed with them.

Consequently, a body that is State-funded but has no legal status, is now working with the Roman Catholic Church to deliver in-service training to religion teachers in State-funded schools, without any day-to-day role for the Department of Education in supervising this work. Furthermore, there is no public accountability in relation to how this work is conducted.

Contents

  1. Background: Department used to provide in-service training
  2. Today: PDST and Catholic Church provide in-service training
  3. This seems to breach the Constitutional ban on endowing religion
  4. Extracts from Atheist Ireland’s questions and PDST response
  5. Atheist Ireland’s follow-up with the PDST
  6. Atheist Ireland’s appeal of the PDST responses
  7. Review by the Office of the Information Commissioner
  8. Conclusion

1. Background: Department used to provide in-service training

Here is the background to this situation. Until 2010, the in-service training of working teachers was an internal function within the Department of Education.

Before this date, representatives of the Catholic Church had sought to become involved with in-service training days for religion teachers. The then Minister for Education responded to make it clear that no Catholic Church representatives could participate in publicly-funded in-service teacher training, and that no State resources could be made available for any in-service teacher training that was arranged by the Catholic Church.

Today, this situation has been entirely reversed. In 2010, in-service training for teachers was carved out of the Department of Education and into the fully State-funded Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), which was created for this purpose.

Now, publicly-funded in-service training for religion teachers includes detailed involvement of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Department of Education plays no role in this work.

On 2nd June 2001, the then Minister for Education, Michael Woods, wrote to Fr Donal O’Neill, the Chairperson of the National Association of Diocesan Advisors. This letter included the following statement:

“I understand that it was appreciated and accepted by members of your association why it is not possible to have Diocesan Advisors at inservice courses for Junior Certificate Religious Education, and why funding for local inservice by Diocesan Advisors is not possible.”

2. Today: PDST and Catholic Church provide in-service training

More recently though, in-service training for religion teachers has been provided jointly by the PDST and the Catholic Church. There are examples of such practice from right across the country. For example, details of one such event in Kerry (held on February 12th 2016) are described here and other similar events in Dublin are described here. In fact, at the in-service day described in the document illustrated below (that included a PDST representative), Veritas products were promoted to religion teachers in Monaghan.

Religion Inservice Training for Religion Teachers in Monaghan3. This seems to breach the Constitutional ban on endowing religion

It was always the case before the PDST was created, that any involvement of the Catholic Church in publicly-funded in-service training for religion teachers, was viewed as inappropriate. This is because the State RE course is supposed to be for those of all faiths and none. It is also because any State funding of one specific religious denomination is unconstitutional.

However, at these in-service training events today, teachers are now instructed how to provide Roman Catholic faith formation, and not just how to teach the State RE curriculum. Furthermore, that State resources are now invested in such explicitly Roman Catholic activities raises the question of how this can be consistent with Article 44.2.2 of the Constitution:

“The State guarantees not to endow any religion.”

4. Extracts from Atheist Ireland’s questions and PDST response

When Atheist Ireland became aware that the Professional Development Service for Teachers attends in-service training days for religion teachers along with representatives of the Catholic Church, we asked the PDST some questions using the Freedom of Information Act.FoI Response from PDST on 30th January 20185. Atheist Ireland’s follow-up with the PDST

When we got this response, we told the PDST that we knew that there had been several in-service training days for religion teachers, which were attended by both representatives of both the Catholic Church and the PDST, and that our FoI request had merely sought a comprehensive list of these events.

When we highlighted this discrepancy to the PDST, Ciara O’Donnell (the National Director of the PDST) told us that:

“From time to time we are asked by teacher professional network (TPN) or Diocese bodies to present at their events according to our curricular remit.”

This follow-up information undermines their original responses to our second question. In that, they had told us that there had been no correspondence with the Catholic Church. But there must have been such correspondence for Diocese bodies to ask the PDST to present at their events.

6. Atheist Ireland’s appeal of the PDST responses

Since the Freedom of Information Act response provided by the PDST was misleading and contradictory, Atheist Ireland issued a formal appeal as described by the Act. The PDST then changed course. They responded by stating that they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and would answer no more questions.

Letter from National Director of the PDST

7. Review by the Office of the Information Commissioner

On 28th February 2018, Atheist Ireland then asked the Office of the Information Commissioner to initiate a review of this situation. On 21st August 2018, the Office of the Information Commissioner issued the result of this review.

This determination confirms that the PDST “is funded by the Department” but goes on to state that “the Department plays no role in its day to day functions”. Furthermore, the Office of the Information Commissioner reported that:

“PDST argued in its submission that it has no legal basis or status and was advised that it cannot provide access to records legally because of this.”

For these reasons, the Office of the Information Commissioner concluded that the PDST is not a public body for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act.

8. Conclusion

Consequently, a body that is fully State-funded but has no legal status, is now working with the Roman Catholic Church to deliver in-service training to religion teachers in State-funded schools, without any day-to-day role for the Department of Education in supervising this work.

Furthermore, there is no public accountability in relation to how this work is conducted, and the limited information that has been provided by the PDST has been misleading and contradictory.

That the State is allowing the Catholic Church to have this influence over in-service training for religion teachers, is unacceptable. That the PDST has been misleading, contradictory, and unaccountable, with respect to its State-funded work, only makes matters worse.

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