Sunday 15 December 2019

In my opinion: State schools must offer choice of education free of religious bias

Dick Spicer Chairperson, Irish Humanist Association

Current moves to establish constitutional safeguards for children are sadly lacking in content.

The Oireachtas Committee has come up with a referendum wording which fails to address the greatest abuse of children's rights in our nation's institutions.

The fact is children (and their parents) cannot exercise the Constitutional 'right of any child to attend school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school' (article 44.2.4), and the Committee seems to have wilfully ignored the problem.

Successive Ministers of Education have set these rights at nought by fostering a curriculum which integrates religion with all subjects, and they have underpinned a school's right to a pervasive 'ethos' (which has no Constitutional basis) in State-funded schools.

Ireland, as a result, is unique in the developed world in not providing a nationwide network of free, State primary schools which all children can attend without compromising their beliefs.

Opinion polls show a majority of parents favour free primary education run by the State. Our present Church-controlled schools have their teachers' salaries and most other costs paid by the State. School property is owned by Church 'patrons' and children cannot attend these schools and have their rights respected as the schools are exempt from protective legislation.

This situation is facilitated by the existing Constitutional provision (article 42.4) which says that 'the State shall provide for free primary education'. This, in effect, lets the State distance itself from responsibility by not committing it to directly 'providing' primary education.

Hence the Oireachtas Committee wording, by proposing to leave Article 42.4 unchanged, perpetuates the injustice of our education system. A government Green paper outlining the reasons for this omission would contribute a welcome degree of transparency in this whole area.

Of concern also is the posited new draft of article 42.3, which states it is the 'duty' of parents to provide for the religious education of their children. The bishops recently defined 'religious education' as inseparable from 'faith formation' and until the meaning of this term in the Constitution is defined, it will place a question mark over parental rights in this area. In a democratic society it is probably wiser to steer clear of thus mandating parental obligations in such areas.

If the State and its Department and Minister for Education wish to demonstrate a serious approach to children's rights there lies to hand an immediate practical demonstration of commitment now and in the future.

The Department owns nine schools, called 'model schools', five of which are operated with a Roman Catholic 'religious ethos' and four with a Church of Ireland 'ethos'. The Minister should re-organise these schools as true 'model schools' to reflect the Constitution and protect every child's interests.

The Department's 'model' schools and the five new VEC primary schools -- (provided they are put on a proper legal footing) and a properly supported, larger network of 'Educate Together' schools could serve as the basis for a required 'national' network 'provided' by the state if the Oireachtas and Government are serious about children's rights.

We also need a constitutional clause that obliges the State to 'provide' education and therefore no longer distance itself from human rights' violations.

Without this safeguard the proposed constitutional wording makes a hollow mockery of any serious commitment to children and their rights.

Irish Independent

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