Ac­tion needed on school divest­ment

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

Sir, – The im­pend­ing change in the lead­er­ship of the Catholic Church pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for church and State to ad­dress for once and for all the widen­ing gap be­tween the cur­rent pri­mary school struc­ture and the needs of the com­mu­nity.

A sur­vey by NUI of over 1,000 trainee teach­ers found “when asked about their be­liefs, one-third of re­spon­dents said they rarely or never prac­tised their re­li­gion or at­tended re­li­gious ser­vices”. An­other sur­vey by RTÉ found that in the 25 to 65 age group – which would cover most teach­ers – al­most one-third of peo­ple never or hardly ever at­tended re­li­gious ser­vices. An­other 30 per cent at­tended re­li­gious ser­vices only a few time a year.

From this we can rea­son­ably con­clude that per­haps one-third of Catholic school teach­ers are es­sen­tially non-re­li­gious – ap­prox­i­mately 12,000 teach­ers.

An un­wel­come fea­ture of Catholic schools is that “all teach­ers in Catholic pri­mary schools are con­trac­tu­ally re­quired . . . to teach the Catholic re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum”. This cur­ricu­lum in­cludes spe­cific faith-for­ma­tion goals, de­spite the ob­vi­ous con­flict with free­dom of thought, con­science and re­li­gion for thou­sands of non-re­li­gious teach­ers.

The Catholic Church has not been slow to de­mand free­dom of con­science in re­la­tion abor­tion. But school teach­ers in its em­ploy­ment must teach chil­dren re­li­gious doc­trines in which they do not be­lieve as eter­nal truths – or face the sack.

The Catholic Church’s po­si­tion on free­dom of con­science is hyp­o­crit­i­cal in the ex­treme. It is a scan­dal that the State per­mits the de­nial of rights of con­science to teach­ers in pub­lic schools. Teach­ing should now be in­cluded in equal­ity leg­is­la­tion.

Tens of thou­sands of par­ents are also de­nied their rights. A Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­port shows that one-quar­ter of par­ents whose chil­dren are in Catholic schools would move their chil­dren to a school with a non-re­li­gious pa­tron, if pos­si­ble. Ed­u­cate To­gether was the over­whelm­ing choice.

Cur­rently church and State are deny­ing over 140,000 chil­dren their con­sti­tu­tional right to a non-re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion. The present, piece­meal divest­ment pro­gramme has failed. It is time now for church and State to get to­gether to agree a ma­jor, na­tional divest­ment pro­gramme which will match up the needs of par­ents, teach­ers and pa­trons.

This does not mean more schools will have to be built – chil­dren in schools to be di­vested are al­ready in pub­lic school places, built by the State.

Pop­u­la­tion growth drives the need for new schools – not re­li­gion.

Divest­ment could be good for the church. As large num­bers of non-re­li­gious teach­ers and par­ents go else­where, Catholic schools will be­come more “Catholic” and at­ten­dances at re­li­gious ser­vices might im­prove.

And given the chronic (and wors­en­ing) short­age of priests, it may well be to the church’s ad­van­tage to let go those who want to go.

Ei­ther way, it is long past time for church and State stopped their foot-drag­ging on pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion and pro­vided the ed­u­ca­tion the peo­ple want. – Yours, etc,

AN­THONY O’LEARY,

Port­marnock,

Co Dublin.

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