Thursday 20 June 2019

Comment: It is time to let the people have their say on the Church’s involvement in education

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Michael Barron

On RTÉ’s ‘Morning Ireland’ recently, Minister Regina Doherty indicated there may be another Citizens’ Assembly. We really need one.

Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly mechanism has served us well in recent years – it has fostered respectful discussion on long-standing social issues. These discussions have borne results. The assemblies fulfilled a significant discursive function, giving often polarised positions the chance to be assessed in balanced consideration. Twice in recent years, thanks to this nuanced public discussion, the Citizens’ Assembly has prepared the way for constitutional reform.

In February 2017, equality in education organisation Equate (of which I was director at the time) convened what looked like a preview to a Citizens’ Assembly on education. This conference on religion and education allowed some on differing sides of the argument to be in the same room together for the first time, despite years of debating. It brought together national and international experts, including Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Discussions were heated at times but honest and constructive. The conference contributed to the wide-ranging consultation and dialogue directed by Education Minister Richard Bruton, which led to the removal of the baptism barrier in May, one of the most significant legislative changes to education for two decades.

A key conference recommendation was to hold a Citizens’ Assembly to consider the constitutional changes needed to decouple Church and State in our education system. I have been calling for this for years and, with the Minister’s statement this week, it is clear that the time is now.

Since the Famine era, the Catholic and Protestant churches have been deeply embedded in every aspect of education policy, practice and law. The Education Act 1998 copper-fastened this control and set up a balance of rights heavily weighted toward school patrons in crucial matters including admissions, characteristic spirit or ethos, and curriculum.

This makes it difficult for governments to reform these areas. Indeed, recent discussions of much-needed reforms of relationships and sexuality education ran aground mainly due to the autonomy afforded (mostly religious) patrons.

Today, 20 years after the Education Act, there is wide agreement this approach is not working – it is neither sustainable nor fair. Polls show the vast majority of Irish citizens want less Church involvement in our schools. It’s time now for all of us to look at the issues afresh. It’s time for the Citizens’ Assembly to grasp the nettle.

It is heartening to see the Labour Party and Social Democrats have picked up the baton on this work and I hope we will soon have cross-party support.

It is also significant that prior to last month’s papal visit, the Taoiseach said he believed we need to separate Church and State in education and health. Indeed, in his welcome to Pope Francis, he spoke about it being time to build a new relationship between Church and State – “a new covenant for the 21st century” – including “when it comes to the patronage of our schools”.

What is clear from the last two referendums and the papal visit is that the Irish people have shifted fundamentally, and categorically no longer want undue Church influence in public policy development. The days of the Church dictating policy in education should be over. The days when Church bodies decide how young people are taught potentially life-saving sexual health issues – or what non-Christian students are taught during religion class – should be over. But let’s be clear: it is not over while the churches maintain 96pc of our primary schools, and while our constitution and laws protect their right to do so.

Our education system is a cornerstone of our democracy and we need to decide its future direction. This can only be done through thoughtful discussions that help to build consensus.

Éamon de Valera famously amended Article 42.4 of the Constitution which read that it would be the duty of the State to ‘provide free primary education’ to read ‘provide for free primary education’. The effect of this seemingly inconsequential ‘for’ is to allow the widescale subcontracting of schooling to private, mostly religious, bodies. Our extraordinary system allows the State to evade responsibility for children’s education, preferring to entrust it to churches that see religious instruction as education’s primary function.

Other barriers to progress lie in Articles 44.2.5 and 44.2.6 of the Constitution, which protect the rights of religious organisations to manage their own affairs, maintain institutions and to maintain property for specific purposes.

As with the last referendum, the people could authorise the Oireachtas to deliver legislation which would place children’s right to education, and the responsibility of the State to deliver this right, above and beyond protections for patrons and their characteristic spirit or ethos.

Indeed, the people could authorise the Oireachtas to legislate to nationalise essential State services such as schools and hospitals. These options can and should all to be trawled through in public discussion at a Citizens’ Assembly. It’s the right time to do the right thing.

Michael Barron is a social justice advocate and former director of Equate

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