Issues to address if we are to have 400 non-faith-based schools
In my opinionby Paul Rowe
Much comment has been made in the past two weeks on school patronage and the government's commitment to provide a network of 400 non-faith-based schools.
Educate Together is a voluntary educational charity that is bound by its articles of association to make available schools that deliver equality of esteem "to children irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background". It is currently in partnership with four different Education and Training Boards (ETBs) in the operation of secondary schools.
In these schools, the Educate Together equality-based model is being successfully implemented, reflecting both the aims of the ETBs and vision of the Educate Together, and they are progressing very well.
It follows from this that Educate Together has no issue with working with ETBs in the operation of primary schools, along the lines of the Education Minister's recent proposals. Educate Together's "Learn Together" model of ethical education is freely available to state bodies such as the ETBs to implement - with the crucial proviso that they maintain equivalent standards of equality of access to school and equal respect within the classroom.
The issue that Educate Together has with the current configuration of the Community National School (CNS) model is that it facilitates separation of young children on the basis of religion.
This separation is not necessary for the delivery of a good programme of religious education as suggested by Dr Kevin Williams on these pages last week. Educate Together schools have been providing high levels of education on world religions for many years, with any faith-formation classes taking place outside school hours on a strictly 'opt-in' for those families who seek it.
Commentators and academics have recently justified the CNS model on the basis of the 'normality' of children being put into separate groups for a variety of reasons in schools. This argument completely ignores the fact that religious discrimination is illegal under Equal Status legislation.
From my experience of years of talking to teachers and principals of primary schools, the forming of groupings in a classroom is one of the most careful and sensitive jobs for a teaching professional. The careful grouping of children is essential to promote in individual children their sense of identity, their sense of place and expectation, their confidence in their peer relationships, their ability to work in teams and the management of personality and the prevention of unhealthy classroom dynamics.
No teacher I know of in Educate Together schools would countenance the deliberate grouping and separation of children on the basis of any of the grounds of our equality legislation. As April Duff of Education Equality mentioned last week, if such a suggestion was made in relation to skin colour or race there would be uproar. To do so on the basis of religion is unacceptable. It is a fundamental principle upon which the definition of rights and intellectual and religious freedom in a modern democratic state relies.
In this model, Catholic families have been guaranteed that the State will provide and pay for teachers who will instruct them in their faith. Those of many other backgrounds have no such guarantee. They will not be given a fully qualified teacher, trained in their faith at the State's expense in a college of teacher education. They either have to rely on a teacher not of their faith delivering the course, or a volunteer who is not a trained teacher, or as is the case for an arbitrary group of 'others' (including Hindus, Buddhists, Humanists and Atheists ) they are assembled together on no other basis than administrative convenience. These issues must be properly addressed if the public is to have any confidence in this new development.
Paul Rowe is CEO Of Educate Together