Are we failing non-Catholic children in our elementary schools?


Living abroad, he walked tall. He laughed a lot, had a certain ease with him. A few weeks after returning to Ireland, he began to keep his head down. He kept his coat, fully zipped. He became sad.

My eight-year-old boy started life in Ireland during the year of fellowship in the local Catholic school. He would spend up to an hour a day in the back of the classroom while the rest of the students prepared for the sacrament. He was given pictures, often holy pictures, to color. When they went to church, he was offered the Bible to read. When the priest came to visit him, he stayed in the classroom. He just didn’t raise his hand.

The school was lovely. There was no nastiness in person. But my son felt left behind, different, missing.

We transferred him to a multi-faith school the following year. We were lucky enough to have the option to relocate, but it was across town. He has few local friends now. He cannot walk home from school like other children in his community.

Is this experience usual? It’s hard to believe. Over 90 percent of our primary schools are under Catholic patronage and devote up to 2.5 hours per week to teaching religion or training the faith; yet our population is increasingly diverse.


Children have a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction, and the Education (School Admission) Act 2018 requires schools to specify how they will facilitate this in their admission policies.

The Education Ministry says each school should determine the most appropriate arrangements, taking into account local issues such as available space, supervision requirements and how the school organizes lessons.

“The right of parents to have their child withdraw from religious education and worship applies in all schools, regardless of the denomination or ethics of the school concerned,” he added. .

In practice, however, surveys indicate that many faith-based schools offer little detail on how to opt out. In many cases, for example, schools do not have the resources for alternative lessons, so many continue to take lessons or color while others learn.

Opt Out Rights is a newly formed group of teachers, principals, parents and academics worried about what they describe as the lack of an effective option.

He argues that the current system does not recognize or challenge the reality that there is no effective withdrawal from religious training. In addition, he says the National Curriculum and Evaluation Council (NCCA) Primary Curriculum Framework project will not change this.

“The lack of an effective opt-out is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as to many other international human rights instruments such as the United Nations Convention on Human Rights. the child. Excluded children who stay in class are probably against the Irish Constitution, ”he said in a submission to the NCCA.

The group says children who have chosen not to attend Catholic faith training courses should be given a real alternative, such as learning about religions and / or citizenship. Such faith training, they say, should be limited to a fixed period rather than the entire school day.

This last point concerns the controversy over Flourish, a relationship and sexuality education (CSR) resource program developed by the Irish Bishops’ Conference for young children up to sixth grade.

Colm O’Connor, a high school principal and signatory of the withdrawal request, argues that the current situation is unacceptable in terms of human rights.

“It is so uncomfortable and traumatic for a child who is trying to withdraw from faith training. It is a public disgrace. And although religion was taught at one point throughout the school so that parents could take their children away, it permeates other subjects, ”he says.

“So at the end of the day kids and parents have no choice but to be brainwashed. This “integrated curriculum” has been around since the 1970s. It is time for a change.

Their submission also argues that, according to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, “the state is responsible for the upbringing of children and therefore has an obligation to respect the human rights of parents. and children, whether religious or not. religious beliefs”.


However, some involved in Catholic schools say they do not recognize this portrayal of what is happening in their classrooms. For example, the Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP) – an umbrella group for Catholic education – says its schools have led the way in including students from all religious traditions and none.

He pointed to research carried out by ESRI and the reports of inspectors from the Ministry of Education which found that “an overwhelming majority of parents and students find their schools to be well run and welcoming”.

The CSP said it has issued guidelines on the inclusion of non-religious students in Catholic schools in recent years, which recommended that schools provide students who choose not to participate in alternative activities during religious education.

He previously said independent research shows parents’ wishes are being met and arrangements are in place for requests to be withdrawn from religious programs and liturgical celebrations.

“School management and parents will need to come to an understanding of practical arrangements for pupils during times when they withdraw from religious education programs and liturgical celebrations,” a CSP spokesperson told the Irish Times.

Many Catholic school principals declined to comment on the matter when approached.

One who spoke on condition of anonymity said that in practice they have gone to great lengths to ensure that all students are welcome and have been doing so for decades.

“One of the great successes of modern Ireland is the number of people of different cultures and languages ​​who have been welcomed and integrated in Ireland; Catholic schools played a key role in this and really improved the brand, ”says a Catholic elementary school principal.

“It’s just not my experience that non-Catholics are excluded in any way or stuck at the bottom of the classroom coloring. . . most non-Catholics are happy to learn the boss’s agenda, because at the end of the day, it’s about love and understanding.

Another director, however, recognizes that faith and patronage programs can be a barrier, especially with time spent in fellowship and confirmation.

“Our primary schools are just very Catholic in the language we use, in our rituals, in our school calendar. Our big events are Christmas and Easter and of course the sacraments. We’re just busy getting started, ”says the manager.

“Most schools would be happy to change. In other words, teachers would be happy to change. You also have progressive priests. But they all respond to the diocese and the bishop, and the Church is very sensitive to any criticism, so their hands are tied. “

It also highlights the practical problems faced by schools in accommodating diverse students.

“We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the staff to send the kids to a different room, so they stay where they are. Some schools allow parents to pick up their child if we go to church or if a teacher stays with them, but that’s about all we can handle.

In the meantime, many parents are still struggling with these issues in the field. However, a broader shift around the place of faith training in schools seems, for now, to be linked to larger issues such as legal, constitutional and patronage issues, such as who controls our schools. . Meaningful reform, most agree, does not seem likely anytime soon.

Primary school enrollment: who goes where?


Enrollment in Catholic primary school


Multiconfessional school enrollments


Church of Ireland registrations

Source: Ministry of Education report on enrollments in 2020

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