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I am a religious believer and I support removing Rule 68 from schools


Dr Kevin Williams

Dr Kevin Williams

Dr Kevin Williams

The proposal by the Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan to remove Rule 68 from the Rules for National Schools before this Dáil ends is a necessary and positive one and opposition to its removal is misguided.

Rule 68 is part of the legacy of the history of Irish education but, as will be made clear, it no longer reflects the legal situation so its removal would be timely and appropriate.

What is it all about? According to the Constitution, parents enjoy the right to withdraw their children from religious education that cultivates faith but it is hard to see how such withdrawal can be complete or absolute in practice. This is because the Rules of the Department of Education require the maintenance of a religious ethos in all primary schools. This requirement is part of Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools promulgated in 1965 ('a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school'). This means that all primary school pupils are supposed to receive indirect religious education.

A much stronger statement about the place of religion appeared in the Primary School Curriculum of 1971. According to this document the 'separation of religious and secular instruction into differentiated subject compartments serves only to throw the whole educational function out of focus . . .'

The Civics programme of 1966 promoted a similar view. It claimed that moral and civic education depends on religion.

Few people are aware that religion dominates the regulations that govern the operation of Education and Training Board (ETB) (formerly VEC) schools at second level but oddly enough this has never become problematic. The Introduction to Memorandum V 40 (published in 1942) that underpin these schools states that the education provided in them 'be in keeping with Irish tradition and should reflect in the schools the loyalty to our Divine Lord which is expressed in the Prologue and Articles of the Constitution'.

There has been no controversy, one way or the other, concerning the very strong demands to integrate religion into the life of schools in the ETB sector. This could well be because the largely middle class community of complainers concerns itself little with these schools.

Note that these requirements about religion came from the State rather than from the Churches.

Why the Rule should be rescinded? Firstly, it is inconsistent with liberal democratic principles in the Western world to teach religion, even indirectly, to those who reject it. I say this as a citizen who is a religious believer.

This is not just a personal view. Seeking to promote religious faith in all young people is inconsistent with the Irish Constitution, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Education Act.

Secondly, and more importantly, removing the requirement to affirm religion throughout the curriculum would make no practical difference. For example, the 1971 statements on the role of religion on the primary curriculum do not appear in the document of 1999. More dramatically the curriculum for CSPE (Civic, Social and Political Education) of 1996 makes no mention at all of religion.

Rule 68 is unnecessary because the Education Act leaves it up to individual schools to decide their own belief systems. Its removal would not affect the right of denominational schools to maintain their religious ethos.

There is a plausible case that references to the profile of religion in Irish schools are no more than rhetorical guff but the removal of Rule 68 would still be a positive symbolic statement.

It is not the task of a liberal democracy to seek, even indirectly, to foster religious faith in its citizens.

Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, School of Education, DCU.

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