In my opinion: We must cater for the non-believers in our primary schools
Published 24/11/2010 | 05:00
The area of primary education has for decades been fraught with pitfalls for the rapidly increasing non-religious community.
This community is now larger than all of the other non-Catholics of our State added together. Apart from a comparative handful of Educate Together (ET) schools, we have no choice but to send our children to religious-run schools.
The problem with the denominational-run schools is that they rarely accommodate withdrawal of children from religious instruction, and do not provide non-religious moral education. Both of these rights are in the Irish constitution but are ignored by most school principals, managers and patrons.
This is not to deny that some schools do make an effort but they are very much the exception, and it is strange that in a society which is increasingly focused on childrens' rights this injustice is overlooked.
Overlooked not just by the schools, even civil and human-rights watchdogs make little play with this discrimination.
The Catholic Church has indicated it is willing to help solve the situation by making available to the State a network of school structures.
The State, through the piloting of the VEC primary schools, is developing a model where the constitutional rights of the non-religious are respected.
At last we can see the possibility of primary schools worthy to be called national. The quid pro quo for the Catholic Church handing over its schools is that they wish to see Catholics and those of other faiths receive instruction during the school day, with the non-religious receiving moral education.
In the economic circumstances facing us, possibly for decades to come, I believe that this offer and the concomitant VEC model should be welcomed as a national solution.
The VEC community national school model differs from the present practice in ET schools where religious instruction takes place outside the school day, but I feel that they should not be rejected on that basis.
The Humanist Association of Ireland has been involved in the evolution of the religious education programme over the past two years, and that module and the school practice in my opinion meets the constitutional requirements of the non-religious community.
The Humanist Association has however now decided, and stated, that they would rather not have the schools if religion is to be taught during the school day. I consider this to be naive, utopianism at best and a churlish radicalism at worst.
The State, in setting up these schools, made the scheme conditional on the schools meeting the needs of the non-religious community. As there is now no organisation speaking with the wider interests of the non-religious in mind, it behoves the Department of Education to assess whether it does indeed meet our needs.
The appointment of an independent assessor would hopefully clarify this and ensure their future development.
These schools are the minimum that can be expected from a state which until now has not issued regulations to all primary schools obliging them to respect our constitutional rights.
That option is still theoretically open to the State, but in the real world I believe the VEC primary schools are the nearest we will get to a solution.
I welcome the department's initiative in coming up with this major reform of Irish education, which all political parties should support.