The entire area of religion and the role it plays in our education system is complex, and can be controversial as people on all sides understandably have strongly-held views on these issues.
Two weeks ago I set out some of my own thoughts in this area when I said that we also must acknowledge the role that religious organisations have played in providing a quality national primary education system for almost two centuries, often at times when there weren’t many other organisations volunteering to do so.
However we must recognise that Ireland has changed, is changing and will continue to change. Almost 96% of our primary schools are run by religious organisations, 90% by the Catholic Church. However I don’t think that any of us believe that this reflects the wishes of the current generation of parents. Only 66% of marriages now take place in religious ceremonies. While choice of marriage is not an absolutely accurate proxy for views on religious education, I believe it provides a clear indication of the scale of the challenge we need to address.
My basic view is that we must seek to provide for parental wishes, while also respecting some general principles like ‘live and let live’ and striving for the greatest good of the greatest number.
I also believe that as a State and as a national education system we have a duty to integrate and to promote understanding of each other’s cultures and beliefs. We have seen the failures of many other countries in successfully integrating minority religious communities into their society. Across the world we have lived for decades with the consequences of misunderstanding and hatred between groups of different religions across and within national borders. Increasingly in a globalised world we are seeing these trends collide with horrific consequences. The role of the State, and in particular of its education system, in promoting inclusion and understanding between different groups is becoming more important.
Community National Schools
Later this morning I look forward to seeing these principles of inclusion, integration and understanding in action in our education system when I visit Citywest and Saggart Community National School.
The Community National School is a new model of multi-denominational school which is not that well-known among the public, however I believe it has a bright future ahead of it and a major role to play in providing choice to parents in the future.
Distinctions between the Community National School and other models of multi-denominational education which many parents appreciate generally include:
• Children wear a school uniform
• Teachers are referred to formally, e.g. Muinteoir Orla, Mr Murphy
I know that excellence in education is the top priority of the people who lead and teach in these schools, and that they are continually developing better teaching methods and using technology in more innovative ways.
On the specific issue of faith and belief nurturing, the philosophy of the Community National School as a multi-denominational school is based on international best practice in this area, and on each child better understanding and ultimately celebrating both their own and their friends’ religious and cultural identities. Religious identity is explicitly not left at the school gate, but used as a means of enriching the learning experience on the basis of mutual understanding and integration.
So, for example, I am aware that many Community National Schools encourage their school communities to celebrate the religious festivals and rites of passage of the various religious communities within the school, whether it be First Communion, Confirmation or Eid. I am aware of non-religious and Muslim families in some Community National Schools showing up in large numbers to join the Catholic families in the school First Communion celebration, and Christian and non-religious families returning the favour for Eid. This is an example of precisely the type of shared understanding and integration that the State should be promoting through its education system, and I wish to recognise this here.
However I also believe, as I have said before, that a desire on behalf of parents to bring up their children in their own religious ethos is to be welcomed and should be supported where possible. In that spirit, another advantage of the Community National Schools for many parents is that they offer faith and belief nurturing during the school day. In keeping with its multi-denominational ethos, the programme of faith and belief nurturing is based on mutual understanding of different religions and belief systems, and of people who don’t subscribe to any religion, based on a curriculum, known as “Goodness Me Goodness You”, developed in accordance with best practice by the State’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. However for religious groups who wish, preparation for specific life events or subjects – for example First Communion or Confirmation for Catholics – can be provided during the school day.
How this operates is currently the focus of some examination. I believe that it is a good thing that the way that religion and beliefs is taught in these schools is continuously reviewed and examined.
One of the great virtues of the Community National School Model is its responsiveness and its adaptability, its ability to respond to the needs and wishes of the individual school community on the ground, while firmly adhering to its multidenominational ethos. I know that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has recently developed a new religion and beliefs curriculum at the senior end of the Community National Schools, and is in the process of reviewing this curriculum at the junior end. I know the Education and Training Boards as patron are also looking at how ‘Goodness Me Goodness You’ can be delivered on the ground in the most inclusive fashion possible.
These processes are very welcome, and I hope that they can be brought to a conclusion and their findings implemented as early as possible. I know they will look at various issues including the manner in which the needs of specific faith groups to hold specific religious education or sacramental preparation classes are met, in a manner consistent with the overall philosophy of integration and inclusion. I know that all stakeholders, including religious groups, will be consulted as part of this process.
I personally believe that one model, which I know has operated by some Community National Schools on the ground, which has merit is based on the principle that the entire class group is taught religion and beliefs together throughout the whole year. However individual faith groups who wish are allowed to withdraw from those classes, within limits (for example up to around 10 hours per year) to allow them to prepare for specific rites of passage or learn about specific issues to do with their own faith group during school time. Precisely how this is delivered can be worked out locally in cooperation with local faith leaders and communities. While responding to local needs is key, it is done within a framework set down by the patron to ensure consistency of approach and best practice
This model has the merit of responding to the needs of faith-based parents who wish their children to be able to prepare for specific events – for example Communion and Confirmation in the case of Catholic families – but also respects the best principles of inclusion and mutual understanding that are central to multidenominational education.
The success and popularity of these schools, of which there are currently 11 around the country, is reflected in the fact that I am aware of several local communities who are actively exploring the possibility of establishing a local Community National School.
The Community National Schools continue to evolve, and as part of that a lot of work has gone on in recent years resulting in the transfer of patronage from the Minister to the ETBs. A further step in this process will take place in the coming week when I will be issuing a direction to the appropriate ETBs to establish a Board of Management in each of the Community National Schools under their patronage.
Through the local Education and Training Boards, which are present in every county in the country, the State is the patron of these schools and I am delighted to have this opportunity to explain in more detail what they are about and say publicly that we think you are doing great work.
I believe that having the State as patron is a strong advantage of this model, as it enables it to respond to changing parental views and wishes. The State, through the establishment of CNS schools has taken a very appropriate and ambitious approach to pluralism. It has chosen to deal head on with religious diversity in a meaningful way, learning from international practice and the experiences of other jurisdictions.
I look forward to working with the ETBs and with individual Community National Schools as they continue to develop across the country. I believe they have an extremely valuable role to play in the future of our education system.