'One size fits all' approach to RE studies is no substitute for diversity of patronage
Published 09/12/2015 | 02:30
It is difficult to know what the problem is that the proposed primary curriculum subject 'Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB), and Ethics' is meant to solve.
Is it about inclusion? If so, it seems it's not going to work.
The recent case in Castletroy College, Limerick is salutary in this regard. Parents took their child out of a post-primary first year religion programme similar to the new course the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) wants to introduce to primary schools. The course wasn't faith formation, but the parents still wanted an exemption, and were entitled to it.
Atheist Ireland has already requested the NCCA to guarantee that their members will be entitled to exempt their children because the programme may offend their "philosophical convictions".
On the basis of how the NCCA wants the course taught, Christian parents have good reason to feel that their children should not be exposed to a methodology that is at best going to be agnostic about their faith. They might want exemptions too.
The NCCA consultation document is unclear on whether inclusion is the goal. It speaks about the importance of "inclusive school communities" yet under its stated aims it focuses on the development of self-respect, tolerance towards others, open mindedness and civic mindedness.
The problem here is that teachers and principals would rightly claim that they are already working hard at developing all of these in children, and find scope to do so in the curriculum as it stands.
When I was in a Christian Brothers school some 40 years ago we learned about various faiths. A proper Catholic education requires an understanding of other religious traditions.
The new Catholic RE curriculum specifically provides for this. As Pope Francis has said: "We have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices." Atheism also raises important questions for Christians to reflect upon from the perspective of their own tradition and in an age-appropriate manner.
I know of no teacher in a faith-based school today who does not show welcome to a child from another faith community and who does not treat that child with respect.
The Inspector General's Report in 2013 found that there was a 95pc satisfaction rate among parents with regard to primary schools. An update on the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism (July 2014) found that what was needed was better awareness and communication to parents of how inclusive primary schools already are in practice.
The Department of Education and Skills has stated categorically that ERB and Ethics will be in addition to, and not in any way a replacement for, existing religious education. This will concern those who think religion should have less, not more, time in the classroom, although currently the only subject that gets less time in primary schools than religious instruction is PE.
It is unfortunate that the word 'inclusion' has become narrowed to refer to the issue of religious persuasion when other forms of exclusion remain of grave concern.
Illiteracy levels in Ireland are the same today as they were in 1994. One in six adults struggle to understand basic written information, and transfer from secondary to tertiary education is still determined largely by environmental and socio-economic factors.
Then there is the issue of how welcoming some schools are to those from working class backgrounds and the Traveller community. Significantly, an ESRI report noted that Catholic primary schools are "more likely" to have pupils from these backgrounds on their roll-books and that the "widest spread of nationalities was evident in Catholic schools".
Some 75pc of immigrants to Ireland are from Christian denominations, and often they are more committed to their Christian faith than Irish Catholics. Helping them to feel included would mean deepening our own religious commitment.
Recent speculation that more information about religious traditions might help tackle Islamophobia has no evidence behind it. Fanaticism and fundamentalism usually result from insecurity about one's own beliefs rather than confidence in them.
Factual information about religions and various worldviews, though helpful, are of limited value. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism acknowledged this when it said: "Inter-faith and inter-cultural initiatives work best in schools where Catholic students and parents are most committed to their own practice".
Sincere commitment to one's own faith fosters mutual understanding, tolerance and acceptance of difference, and for families who wish it, faith-based schools should be allowed to play their part fully in their children's faith development.
A 'one size fits all' approach to RE curriculum is no substitute for greater diversity of patronage.
Freedom for religion and freedom from religion must go hand in hand. I agree wholeheartedly with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: it is in no one's interests, and certainly not that of the mission of the Church, for children to be baptised for the wrong reasons, though there is no evidence that this abuse is widespread.
The Catholic Church is committed to divestment. The problem now is that schools already vacated and available to the State are not being turned over to other patrons quickly enough. This needs to be addressed urgently by the minister.
Father Eamonn Conway is Professor and Head of Theology & Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick