AS the catholic church prepares to hand over patronage of its primary schools, Jillian Bolger recounts her own struggles with a system that puts religion before the educational welfare of the child.
Back in 2006 my husband and I visited our local gaelscoil for an appointment. We hoped to enrol our five-month-old in the school, with a view to starting his primary education there in 2010. There were several schools closer to our house, but we both wanted our children to be able to communicate in Irish. Neither of us are fluent Irish speakers, but we try our best and understand a good deal more than we can speak.
After the interview with a pleasant principal I asked if many of the children in the school were non-Catholics. "Oh, they're all Catholics," she replied. I explained that our son wasn't being baptised and wondered if this would affect his application. "Our school is under the auspices of the Arch Diocese of Dublin," she replied, "which means we have to prioritise Catholic children."
She went on to tell me that we could still register our son but that they always fill their quota with Catholics, and seeing as they are usually oversubscribed, we should really look for another school.
Feeling a little upset I asked if the principal believed that the pupils at her school were all practising Catholics. She admitted that there is no way to know what goes on at home but that she is certain some families do not attend Mass regularly. I asked if she worried that some children were being baptised simply to facilitate school admissions. She answered honestly, admitting to me that this practice does go on, and that schools have no way of policing it.
Prior to my disclosure about our non-religious status, the principal had told us that children with an Irish-speaking parent are usually given preference in the admissions process. As I left the school feeling defeated, I began to wonder if the school would fill its last place with an English-speaking Catholic or an Irish-speaking atheist.
As new parents, this gaelscoil meeting was our first experience of the education system in Ireland. Having decided not to bring our son up as a Catholic, I was suddenly filled with fear. How many more doors would be slammed in our faces in the search for primary education?
I argued with my husband, accusing him of being idealistic. "This country discriminates against non-Catholics," I ranted. "Are you prepared to jeopardise the education of our child over some dogmatic views? Can't we get him baptised, and then be done with the whole religious thing? It will make life so much easier for everyone."
Both my husband and I were brought up as Catholics, but stopped practising many years ago. When we got married we did so in a registry office, followed by a blessing in a Catholic church by an open-minded priest. It was a compromise that saw me get my traditional-style church wedding without my husband having to make vows in the eyes of a god he doesn't believe in. We're legally married in the eyes of the State but not in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
After much heated discussion I eventually agreed that as long as we imparted the Christian values of love, compassion, kindness and honesty that I'd be happy for our children to grow up without any formal religion. I had always imagined that Christian values would have included tolerance and equality, but it seems that the Irish education system has created a legal loophole that allows for discrimination on the grounds of religion.
Sadly, this loophole is easily circumvented with a baptism cert, which can be easily acquired by jumping, however insincerely, through a few hoops. A conversation on Today FM last year highlighted that many listeners to the Ray D'Arcy Show had their children baptised purely to guarantee a place in primary school. Had this not been a prerequisite, these children would not now be members of the Catholic faith.
Currently, 96pc of primary schools in Ireland are under denominational patronage, with almost 90pc of these Catholic. According to the 2011 census, more than 84pc of the population is Catholic, but I fear the statistics lie. I know of many peers who have had their children baptised merely to access their primary school of choice.
One such friend now regrets her decision. "My son's dad wanted the baptism and we were also given the impression that we'd be discriminated against by schools if he wasn't baptised. Five years on I now feel deeply hypocritical: my son is coming home from school asking me about God and I haven't the courage to say I think it's all a load of rubbish, for fear of what the school would do if they hear it back!"
Another couple, who declined to be interviewed, had their children baptised without telling anyone (bar two sympathetic friends/witnesses). The children are not being brought up as Catholics, so the couple didn't want the pomp and ceremony of a family christening. If the grandparents had been told they'd have insisted on a big day out, and would expect Communion and Confirmation days to follow.
After speaking out for years against parents who had their children baptised to facilitate school requirements, this couple are too embarrassed to admit that they caved in to pressure.
Another reason I fear for the accuracy of the statistics is that of the 3.86 million people who are described as Catholic in the census, many do not practise their faith. They may be Catholic in name, but how many are in nature? My neighbour teaches sixth-form kids in an inner-city school and tells me that hardly any of the class, who make their confirmation this year, have been to mass since they made their Holy Communion four years ago. I'm not qualified to say what constitutes a bona fide Catholic, but I imagine there is more to it than ticking the baptism, Communion and Confirmation boxes.
As each school is legally allowed to establish it's own admissions policy, the gaelscoil that rejected us was fully within its rights to do so. Thankfully, our local national school is a Catholic-ethos school that welcomes all denominations from the parish. As a result our son was welcomed here with open arms and we know our other two children will be as well. We're perfectly happy to have our children educated in a Catholic school -- there's much to be said for the Catholic tradition of education and many of the secondary schools we'd favour are under religious patronage.
Niamh C, a primary school teacher in Dublin, wouldn't have any problem with Catholics being prioritised by Catholic schools, were it not for the fact that so many schools in the country fall into this category, leaving very little room for diversity. She also objects to the mandatory Catholic study necessary to qualify as a primary school teacher in Ireland.
"You must pass an entire module on the Catholic faith, including sacraments, doctrine etc, yet you're not obliged to study any other religion. It's a monopoly in this country and, although I am a practising Catholic, I disagree with the massive stake the Catholic Church has in schools."
The rise of the Educate Together movement is a step in the right direction. Established in 1978, it's the patron body to Ireland's multi-denominational schools, and now numbers some 60 national schools nationwide. The schools have been set up and developed by groups of parents and their ethos promotes inclusiveness regardless of a child's social, cultural or religious background. Many Catholic schools practise these values, but it's common for the heavily subscribed ones to simply prioritise their own kind.
Asked about religious discrimination, Educate Together's CEO, Paul Rowe, argues that it remains a deeply ingrained problem in Irish education. "Despite the best efforts of many who work or volunteer in the system, institutional religious discrimination remains a culture that must be addressed. Religious discrimination is legalised through exemptions from equality legislation. It is prevalent in teacher education, in teacher recruitment and promotion and in a wide range of Government bodies, administrative practices and establishment thinking."
In 2011 Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn established a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, which was charged with advising the Minister on, among other things, how best to increase diversity in Irish schools. A new report from an advisory group to this forum has recommended that 47 schools around the country be divested of religious patronage with work beginning within the year. It's a step in the right direction for all of us who want to ensure our children get the same access to education that children of religious persuasions are entitled to.
Another recommendation of the advisory group is that 'faith formation' or religious instruction be taught outside of school hours. One couple who strongly favours this idea is the Walkers, who have three young sons. Dad, George, was educated through Irish and they decided early on that they'd like their children to have the same experience. Unfortunately, their sons were turned away from two nearby gaelscoils on the grounds that they weren't baptised. The children now travel to a Catholic-ethos gaelscoil in the city centre that has an all-inclusive admissions policy.
"We wanted an Irish-language education, and aside from a single Educate Together school, the other gaelscoils are all Catholic," mum Lynda explains. "So far we're very happy, but I am concerned about when the boys get to Second Class and it's Holy Communion Year. I don't have any problem with the children being exposed to Catholic practices, but I wonder how much time will be taken up with the preparation for Holy Communion."
At the moment details like these are of secondary concern for thousands of new parents who wonder where their religion-free children will be educated. Both myself and the Walkers have friends who think we were crazy to jeopardise our children's education over a small formality like a church baptism, but I say it takes bravery to instigate change, and that hypocrisy and ritual hoop-jumping are doing our children a disservice in the long run.