Changing times for Ireland's primary schools

Tuesday 10 April 2012 09.09
The report calls for changes to the teaching of religion in primary schools
The report calls for changes to the teaching of religion in primary schools

The starting point for the report is the widely acknowledged recognition that current primary school provision does not match the needs and rights of today’s parents and their children.

The vast majority of primary schools in Ireland are controlled by the churches. The Catholic Church alone runs almost 90%. Around 2% are multi-denominational.

But this report says the Irish population is more multicultural, with a much greater variety of belief systems, as well as a substantial minority of non-believers.

The report says there is now a mismatch between the inherited pattern of denominational schools and the rights of citizens as outlined in various international conventions to which Ireland is a signatory.

It makes many recommendations and sets out roadmaps as to how to achieve change.

It recommends that the process should begin with 47 named areas of the country - in towns and parts of Dublin city where the population is static but where school choice is limited or non-existent.

There are around 250 schools in these areas and this report suggests that the patronage of around 50 could be transferred from, for instance Catholic Church patronage, to some other model.

It says the Department of Education should consult with the parents of pre-school children to measure demand for change.

If significant demand exists then the Department should, in consultation with existing patrons, lease a building from existing school stock to house a new school.

It says the State should decide what type of school that will be.

But there are areas of the country that are served by just one school.

This report says these ‘stand-alone’ schools may very well remain under the patronage of a church, but it says they will have to change to ensure that other groupings are not discriminated against.

It says the State should develop a protocol to give clarity to these schools and enable them to create practical policies.

The report recommends several legislative and rule changes.

It says the Education Act should be amended to uphold the rights of parents and children.

It suggests that equality legislation that allows the churches to discriminate on the basis of religion should be looked at too.

Referring to the rules that govern primary schools, the report says the controversial Rule 68 should be deleted "as soon as possible".

This rule states that: "Of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use.

"Religious instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school."

For all primary schools with a mixture of religions or nonbeliever pupils, including denominational ones, the report lays out a number of specific recommendations.

Some of these may prove controversial with the Catholic Church.

It says preparation for sacraments, such as Communion or Confirmation, should not encroach on time allocated to the general curriculum.

The display of religious emblems and artefacts should not be exclusive to any one faith or tradition, it says.

It says communal prayers and hymns should be respectful of the beliefs and culture of all children.

Crucially, it says that all primary schools should educate all pupils about religions and beliefs in general, as well as ethics.

The report was written by Professor John Coolahan, who chaired the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in Primary Schools.

It is now being considered by Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn. A White Paper on the topic will now be drawn up.

The report will now no doubt be read and analysed with great interest by all those involved in primary education.