More than two years after they were first requested under Freedom of Information legislation, RTÉ's Education & Science Correspondent Emma O Kelly has received hundreds of documents from the Department of Education detailing discussion between the Department and the Catholic bishops and others over the teaching of religion in new Primary schools.

With the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism due to report shortly, this is a hot issue in education. RTÉ has placed all of these documents online (see bottom of page) so that anyone who wishes can browse them.

In 2007 the effects of unprecedented levels of immigration plunged the education system here into crisis. Suddenly it was clear that there were not enough Primary school places to cater for all. It was also clear that our traditional, largely Catholic primary school system needed urgent reform.

The then Minister for Education Mary Hanafin announced a brand new kind of school called the Community National School. Its aim; to educate all comers, from all religious backgrounds and none.

In 2008 the first two CNS schools opened their doors in Dublin 15. Four years later there are now five CNS schools in operation in Dublin and surrounding counties. More are scheduled to open in coming years.

They are piloting a completely new model of Religious Education, which aims to instruct all children in their individual faiths. This was, and remains, a completely new approach both here and internationally.

These documents provide the first comprehensive insight into the initial development and workings of this experiment.

Existing Multidenominational schools here teach children about different religions and belief systems. The CNS approach, variously called ''Multi-belief'' or ''Multi-faith'' by those designing it, aims to provide faith formation. For Catholic children this means they will prepare for Communion and Confirmation during school hours as opposed to after.

For the Catholic Church this has, since 2004, been a “minimum non-negotiable requirement” for their support for any new Multi-denominational school system. Doc 41

In 2008 almost 80% of pupils in the two brand new CNS schools were not Catholics. Muslims represented the largest proportion, at 22%. 14% did not indicate any religion. The vast majority were the children of immigrants.

Commitments to the Church

The documents released to RTÉ show that the Catholic Church played a strong role in the development of the new CNS schools.

They show that the CNS model which was first announced in 2007 by then Minister for Education Mary Hanafin corresponds to a model designed by the Catholic Church several years earlier. Doc 41

They also reveal that in late 2008 Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe “reaffirmed” to the Catholic bishops what is described as "an earlier commitment" to provide Catholic pupils with the same programme of religious education as offered by Catholic Primary Schools. Doc 115 This meant that children would have to be separated in order for Catholic children to receive sacramental preparation from “suitably qualified” teachers during school hours.

Other religious leaders were clearly opposed to this. In a letter to the Department in 2007, Canon John McCullough of the Church of Ireland warned that it would be “inappropriate to separate denominational groups for religious education as this runs counter to the concept of a school providing inclusive education”. Doc 56 The Methodist Church wrote to the Department saying they were “in full agreement” with the concerns expressed by Canon McCullough. Doc 59

From the start there were plans to divide the children along religious lines for several weeks in the run-up to Easter. But it appears that departmental officials interpreted the minister’s so-called ‘’reaffirmation’’ in 2008 to mean that Catholic and other children would have to be separated for much longer periods.

This news was greeted with concern by teachers at the schools, and by VEC officials. Notes of meetings say VEC officials were worried that the message conveyed by the position of the Catholic Church was likely to be one of “the state affording special treatment to Catholic children”. Given the make-up of the school populations, they said, it was likely to be seen as “the segregation of native white Catholic children from non-white newcomers”. Doc 115

Departmental notes of meetings with teachers and principals at the two schools state that the two school principals believed this would seriously undermine the faith of parents in what had been promised. They said it seemed that “the demand of the bishops” was ignoring this. Doc 124 They are recorded as saying that splitting classes is against the school ethos of equality. They express particular concern for the reaction of Muslim parents who they say have agreed to approach the programme with trust and patience. The teachers appealed for the continuance of integrated teaching but they were told that splitting classes was now “a requirement”. Teachers said this would be seen by parents as “unfair and divisive” and would spell “the beginning of the end for integrated religious education”. Doc 124

Another document states that “it should be borne in mind that there is a commitment to meeting the requirements of the Department of Education and the Catholic Church”. Doc 125

The documents received by RTÉ cover deliberations up until the end of 2009. They do not show how, or if, this matter was resolved.

Pupils at the schools currently divide into four different Religious Education groups for up to four weeks in the run-up to Easter. Catholics are in one group, Other Christians in another, Muslims in a third, and Hindus, Buddhists and so-called Humanists in a fourth.

Parents' Concern

Other documents reveal what appear to be significant and ongoing difficulties with implementing the new religious education programme, during 2008 and 2009. This includes dissatisfaction among parents.

At one meeting with parents, described in notes as “at times acrimonious”, one parent described the teaching of religion in the school as a "planned takeover". Parents at this meeting complain that they have not been consulted, despite having been promised that they would be. Doc 105

When some parents ask about the provision of classes in moral education instead of religious education, they are told that “moral values cannot be divorced from a religious setting”. Doc 105

Some Muslim parents express surprise that 30 minutes every day has to be devoted to religion. They say they would prefer this 30 minutes to be devoted to some other subject and say religious education could be left to the family. Doc 105

However, memos from departmental meetings held in late 2009 state that parents’ “suspicion” and “animosity” has by then changed to “enthusiastic support” for the programme. Doc 151

Teachers' Concerns

The documents also reveal concerns among teachers about aspects of the programme. They complain about overtly Christian texts that they feel need to be revised and adapted to be more inclusive of others. They say the shared programme is too similar to the Catholic Alive-O syllabus. Doc 116

Some teachers say they are afraid of causing offence to some religions in the school. They express concern around the teaching of a particular lesson which deals with the Christian story of the Annunciation. The story is about the Virgin Mary who is told by an angel that she will give birth to the son of God. Teachers say they are concerned that their interpretation of the story from a Catholic perspective might confuse children from other or no faith traditions. Doc 154 Muslims, for instance, see Jesus as a prophet, not the son of God.

The fear of God

Some of the records deal with a celebration ceremony that was held in the school in November of 2008. These records illustrate some of the cultural difficulties associated with this unique Multi-faith approach.

The celebration ceremony, which involved Junior and Senior Infant classes, was attended by eight different religious leaders who blessed the children. A written report of the event says "for the most part, the blessings were in keeping with the spirit of joy, love and celebration” but it goes on to say that “one pastor struck a somewhat different chord by invoking the fear of God on the children in a demonstrative manner". The account says some staff expressed concern at this "discordant note" which may have touched "a raw nerve" with some parents. The notes go on to suggest that it would be a good idea to "have a chat” with the pastor concerned. Doc 112

Opposition and Agreement

Overall the documents paint a picture of staff at both schools working very hard to make them welcoming and happy places for children and their parents. The evidence is that they do this with a large amount of success. In relation to the Religious Education programme it appears school staff, as well as Department and VEC officials, are striving to make what is a very challenging proposition, that has been handed to them from above, work for the children and parents involved. But this appears fraught with difficulties.

The programme appears constrained by the agreement reached with the Catholic bishops. One documents states “it should be borne in mind that there is a commitment to meeting the requirements of the Department of Education and the Catholic Church”. Doc 125 This means that the children must be segregated along religious lines for at least part of their religious education. No other religious organisation actively looked for this and some, such as the Church of Ireland and the Methodist church, actively warned against it.

The documents show the Humanist Association turning completely against the Religious Education programme as it evolved. They called it "divisive and discriminatory indoctrination". The Multidenominational patron body, Educate-Together warned that it may be unconstitutional.

Other groupings, such as the INTO and the National Parent’s Council, however, were broadly supportive of the project, provided it was fair. The INTO queried if children be separated for Religious Education for two days out of every week. Doc 49

There are now five Community National Schools in operation in Dublin and in surrounding counties. More have been approved and are due to open in coming years.

The documents show parents, the majority of whom are immigrants with little or no experience of the Irish education system, frequently looking for more information and more of a say in the design of the religious education programme. However, one departmental document states "with parents we should make clear that the intention to provide multi-faith education within the school day is the expressed wish of [the Minister] and is not open for discussion or negotiation." Doc 98

City of Galway VEC website, in a section aiming to promote the Community National School model, states that "to date children and their parents are very happy with the multi-belief classes, particularly parents from minority belief traditions."

This does not correspond with the picture that emerges from these documents.

View the documents in full

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The following documents relate to discussions between the Department, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and the VEC over the design of the new programme.

Doc 1 | Doc 2 | Doc 3 | Doc 4 | Doc 5

Dept ignored NCCA warning over teaching religion