Documents reveal Catholic influence in State schools
On 11 June 2015, the principals of State run post primary schools in Tipperary gathered for a routine meeting and their boss, the head of Tipperary Education and Training Board Fionuala McGeever, told them an extraordinary thing, writes Education Correspondent Emma O Kelly.
"The Christian belief, ethos and characteristic spirit of our schools is Catholic", she said, "and this needs to be addressed in all policies".
This wouldn't be an extraordinary comment if Tipperary ETB's CEO had been referring to the majority of Tipperary’s post primary schools, which are run by the Catholic church. But she wasn't.
She was talking about the relatively small number of schools in the county that are administered on behalf of the State by Tipperary Education and Training Board, a secular body.
The comment is contained in redacted minutes of that meeting included in documents received recently by Atheist Ireland using Freedom of Information legislation.
They all relate to Tipperary ETB, and deliberations around the role of religion in its schools in recent years, and Atheist Ireland has published them on their website.
Tipperary ETB administers 12 post primary schools. Three are run in partnership with the Catholic church, the others are entirely under the control of the ETB.
If Tipperary’s ETB schools are Catholic there doesn’t seem to be any indication of this on the school websites or in their brochures.
One of them claims on its website to be "the only co-ed and multi-denominational post primary school in the area".
The documents received by Atheist Ireland also include a letter sent to two of the ETB’s schools, Coláiste Chluain Meala and Gaelcholáiste Cheitinn, by the local Catholic post primary diocesan adviser.
The letter is clearly a pro-forma one, sent not just to this school but to others too.
It tells the schools that "today more than ever post primary schools must commit to making adequate allowance for religious education".
It reminds them that two hours per week must be dedicated to religious education.
It advises that the subject be given "an appropriate place" in the schools’ timetables. "First period or last period of the day is not recommended", it states, "especially for senior students".
The documents detail twice yearly visits that the diocesan adviser makes to the schools.
During one such visit recommendations are made as to how the schools’ religious education policy should be amended. This advice is accepted and acted upon.
By early 2016 the revisions are in place. They set out stringent criteria to govern the opting out of religion by students.
Students can only do so following a written request to the principal from their parents.
The student must remain in the classroom, and "may not undertake homework or study in any other subject relevant to the curriculum".
The document expressly states that the student who opts out must not be allowed to wear earphones.
In other words, they are to be given no possible way of avoiding or blocking out the religious education lesson that is going on around them.
The rules seem designed to make opting out as unappealing and as difficult as possible.
The document makes clear that no other option can be provided.
"No alternative form of supervision will be provided ", it states. "The school will not provide another subject for the student as an alternative".
If parents don’t agree then they must remove their child from the school, personally signing them out as the religion lesson begins, and signing them back in when the lesson has ended; clearly an onerous requirement for parents who are likely to be working during the school day.
This document is agreed as a direct result of advice received from the Catholic church.
The two Clonmel schools are connected. Although they have different names they share a campus and the same school principal.
The documents allude to "discussions re celebrations during the school year".
Those celebrations are listed; an opening year mass, a crib and advent wreath at Christmas time, ashes on Ash Wednesday, a graduation service, and a May alter.
RTÉ News contacted Fionuala McGeever to get clarification on her remark that the schools have a Catholic ethos.
Ms McGeever says her comments need to be put in context.
"This is rural Ireland", she says, "and our pupils are 99.9% Catholic. I was only repeating what my schools tell me, that their ethos is Catholic".
"We are genuinely welcoming of everybody, and are trying to be inclusive of all", she adds.
But it’s the Education and Training Boards centrally that decide ethos, not individual schools.
The Department of Education website describes Tipperary’s ETB schools as inter-denominational in ethos.
Ms McGeever tells RTÉ News she believes it is possible to have an ethos that is both Catholic, and inter-denominational.
In a follow-up email, Ms McGeever tells us that the policy document published on the Atheist Ireland website - detailing the opting out policy described above - is incomplete.
She writes that an entire section has been omitted. However when asked by RTÉ News to supply the missing section, she declines to do so.
The documents received by Atheist Ireland shine a light on just one small corner of our State-run education system.
They reveal behind the scenes deliberations, and schools that seem de facto Catholic, though this is not formally communicated to parents, or prospective parents, or students, on school websites or in brochures.
There are hints in these documents that change is afoot.
Teachers, for instance, ask the diocesan adviser on one of his/her visits whether its "politically correct" to display a crib in the school at Christmas time.
At that same meeting another teacher mentions posters in the school "highlighting all faith traditions".
There are references to the importance of diversity training.
The latest Census figures show that Ireland’s proportion of Catholics has fallen by an unprecedented 6% between 2011 and 2016, to 78% of the population.
All the indications are that this decline will continue in coming years.
After Catholics, people with no religion comprise the second biggest group.
The influence the Catholic church holds over the general population may be declining, but these documents reveal the power and authority it continues to hold in our education system.