Response to Irish Human Rights Commission Consultation Document

school building

Response to

Irish Human Rights

Commission Consultation document


“Religion & Education : A Human Rights Perspective”


Schools and their future require diligent reflection and consideration by all parties involved. Change in educational policy needs to be thought through carefully as the contribution of good schools to the development of social capital and the common good is inestimable. The Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP), an umbrella group providing support for all of the partners in Catholic schools in the Republic of Ireland, has reflected on many of the key issues facing all of the stakeholders in Irish schools at this time and presents this paper in response to the recent IHRC consultation document. The CSP welcomes the contribution of the IHRC in this area and looks forward to an informed debate on all of the relevant issues.

Schools are important places. We spend a lot of time in them. This includes a significant proportion of that most formative period in life between 4 years of age and 18 years of age. The informal education received at home and in the community is of crucial significance. The formal education of children in schools has its own integrity related to the stage of development of the pupils. When schools are working at or near their best they are truly a remarkable human achievement. Young children have a safe place to learn and play and pray; adolescents grow into a deeper intellectual, emotional and moral world; teachers use their personal and professional abilities to nurture and challenge new generations; parents, members of boards of management and other adults give of their time and money to support the educational enterprise. The hope is that by 17-18 years of age a young adult who is free, rational and capable of mature relationships will be able to cross the threshold into higher education or the world of work.

In responding to the IHRC the CSP first raises some concerns it has with the consultation document itself before proceeding to an analysis of the key issues.


Concerns with the consultation document

(1)  In #1 there is reference to the majority of persons defining themselves as belonging to the main Christian Churches. Surely this should say the “vast” majority. The actual figures from the most recent census of population (2006) are – the four main Christian Churches 91%, other faiths 3%, no belief 4%, not stated 2%.

(2)   #3 refers to “non private primary schools”. The meaning of this term is wholly unclear and it is hardly acceptable to define the vast majority of our primary schools negatively. What we have are National Schools under different Patrons. These Patrons are private bodies (with the exception of the Vocational Education Committees) which established schools in accord with their ethos. In order to receive State funding such National Schools must be recognised by the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister can withdraw this recognition.

(3)  #4 speaks of a “certain minimum curriculum” prescribed by the State. This is completely at odds with the reality where the Department of Education and Skills (DES) strictly regulates the curriculum of schools through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the inspectorate’s Whole School Evaluation processes. Indeed Section 30 of the Education Act (1998) states that the Minister determines:

(a) the subjects to be offered in recognised schools,

(b) the syllabus of each subject,

(c) the amount of instruction time to be allotted to each subject, and

(d) the guidance and counselling provision to be offered in schools.

This could hardly be described legitimately as a “certain minimum curriculum”! Further, Section 9 of the Act defines in exact detail the functions of a recognised school, Section 13 describes at length the powers of the inspectorate, while Section 15 demands that a board of management of a recognised school carry out its functions in accord with the policies determined by the Minister. It is not correct to state that schools are “self-governing”.  Although the Board of Management is the employer of all teachers paid out of monies of the Oireachtas, it technically is the Department of Education and Skills, which determines the terms and conditions of those teachers under Section 24 of the Act. Schools must comply not only with extensive legislation and the Rules of National Schools, but also the multitude of Circulars and Guidelines, which issue from the Department of Education and Skills.  The exact composition of Boards of Management at primary level is prescribed by the Department of Education and Skills through its Constitution and Rules of Procedure of Boards of Management, not by the Patron bodies. The consultation document seriously underestimates the powers vested in the Minister and the DES with regard to recognised schools.

(4)  In general the document embraces a very limited understanding of the human right to freedom of religion. It only deals with the negative right not to have any religion imposed on the human person. While this is important it must be balanced with the positive right to freely practise one’s religion. Indeed the history of human rights theory and practice in this area evolved to protect citizens from State interference in the free practice of religious faith. It was never intended to be used to prohibit religious believers from freely expressing their beliefs through processes such as religious education and the establishment of denominational schools. Professor Robbers dealt with this issue in detail in his presentation at the IHRC/TCD conference on 27 November 2010.

(5)  There is a lack of clarity as to the meaning of key terms. None of the following are defined yet the whole premise of the document is dependent on the meaning of these terms: neutral, objective, pluralism, indoctrination, religious education, public education, secular, multi-denominational, non-denominational. There appears to be little appreciation of the fact that the meaning of these terms is intellectually contested in all democratic societies. It is a pity that a deeper exploration by philosophers of education did not form part of the conference on 27 November or part of the consultation document itself. Failure to do so means that one can easily slip into the fallacy analysed by Dr Doyle at the IHRC/TCD conference of equating a secularist view with neutrality. He said: “What underlies this position, I suggest, is a view that religious worldviews are inherently irrational and less worthy than a secularist worldview. Is such an attitude consistent with the injunction to treat people with equal respect…… Religious viewpoints cannot be selected for exclusion from public speech and religious parents should not be targeted as the one group that cannot have their children educated in the way that they wish. It is disturbing that this should be the outcome of a position that represents itself as neutral.” Secularism is not the same thing as pluralism; indeed many secularists adopt a position that is anything but pluralist when it comes to the free expression of religious belief in schools.


The response of the Catholic Schools Partnership

In light of the foregoing the CSP would like to detail its view of the future of primary schooling in the Republic of Ireland. This approach is based on sound philosophical principles, is educationally informed and is compliant with human rights standards. It is offered here as a contribution to the further development of the democratic and liberal principles upon which our State is founded.

(a)  The role of parents

Parental choice in education is recognised in most democracies and enshrined in the Irish Constitution, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in United Nations and European legal instruments. It is also strongly affirmed in the teaching of the Catholic Church. This principle clearly holds that parents have the right to educate their children in accord with their social, political, cultural, linguistic, religious and moral self-understanding. Whilst others may disagree with these views, in principle and except in the cases where a child’s physical and/or emotional wellbeing are endangered, parents’ decisions concerning a child’s education should be respected and, where practicable, facilitated. The ultimate expression of parental choice in schooling is the decision to educate children at home. Most parents do not take this option based on personal, educational and economic judgments, but its very existence in principle is an important statement with regard to parental rights in education vis-à-vis society in general and the State.

(b)  Different types of school

Throughout the world democratic societies provide funding and legal protection for a plurality of school types. The spectrum of provision covers a broad range from schools provided by the State itself to various forms of communal and voluntary groups who come together to give expression to a particular vision of education. Many of these groups owe their inspiration to religious beliefs.

There is no such thing as a value neutral education. All schools, whether established by the State or by one or other voluntary groups, espouse a vision of the human person and give expression to a particular ethos. Some people argue that schools should adopt a neutral stance in relation to religion. The inference is that religious belief is purely a private matter and should have no role in the public sphere of education. However, those who would exclude religion from school also espouse their own ethos. They impart a worldview, a philosophy of life, just as much as the person of faith.


(c)  Faith schools

The interaction between religious belief and education is as old as schooling itself. From the schools and universities of medieval Europe, through the growing rates of literacy promoted by the reformation and counter-reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and on to the furthest end of the spectrum with the atheistic schools of twentieth century communist regimes, the question of God cannot be avoided in education. Some schools in their structures and curriculum embrace a particular belief in God, others present all religions and atheistic humanism as equally valid responses to the question of God, others demand that such beliefs be left at home and not influence the life of the school, others ban all mention of God. But the question of God will not go away. Religious belief makes an absolute claim on the conscience of religious believers. To ignore, belittle or attack such religious belief is to ignore, belittle or attack the self-identity of religious believers. Their religious faith is not one more interest alongside others akin to a hobby or a leisure time pursuit or a family tradition. Rather, it is a fundamental option which frames and interprets all of life. To equate all religions is in a real sense to empty them of any significance. No believer will ever do this. The study of religions and religious beliefs by the social sciences quite properly brackets out the question of belief and the truth claims of each religious tradition. But such studies, while contributing to our knowledge, are a limited lens through which to interpret the conscientious option for religious belief. Many adults who make such an option are committed to the education and formation of their children in accord with their religious beliefs.

Faith schools exist in almost all countries except those where they are outlawed by non-democratic regimes. In many nations they form a central part of the education system while in almost all democratic societies they receive State funding. Such schools provide a real public service and they are a notable expression of the contribution of the voluntary sector to the development of a vibrant civil society. Jurisprudence has evolved in this area to emphasise two freedoms: the individual freedom of parents to choose the school they want for their children and the collective right to form and run schools of a particular denomination. There is a well-developed awareness among policy makers in western democracies concerning the need to provide space for structures of civil society to emerge between the powerful centralising forces of the State on the one hand and the impersonal dynamic of the market place on the other. The principle of subsidiarity might inform such a process. As an organizing principle it suggests that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the State and the international order, should be in the service of the human person. Subsidiarity assumes that these human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasises the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, schools, the churches, and voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. All of this contributes to the common good.


Catholic schools are committed to a religious education which invites students to grow into a deeper understanding of Christian faith, that is respectful of difference, is holistic and is in dialogue with contemporary culture. Such religious education is philosophically justified, it is based on well established educational principles and it fully respects the human rights of all involved. But this does not mean that all religions are the same or that we can reduce religious beliefs to the lowest common denominator between them or that we merely need to impart some information on all religions. Religious education at its best means acknowledging prejudice, cherishing difference, respecting the integrity and irreducibility of each religious faith, nourishing the religious identity of students, fostering encounter with the faith of the ‘other’, accepting failures, healing memories, creating the future. Such a rich panoply has nothing in common with indoctrination which amounts to a deliberate harming of students by undermining their natural ability to reason. In contrast, Catholic schools are committed to the deepest respect for both faith and reason and as such they contribute significantly to the formation of rational and mature citizens of our democratic society.


Catholic schools in Ireland and throughout the world are attended by students who do not come from Catholic families. In many cases parents opt for this type of education and welcome the ethos and values which underpin such schools. In some other cases parents may have little or no choice but to send their child to a Catholic school. This raises the question of opting out of some classes. The Education Act states: “The Minister shall not require any student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student” (Section 30, 2 [e]). It should be noted that this stipulation is directed at the Minister, and applies to all subjects and not just to Religious Education. Catholic schools, for their part, respect and acknowledge the right of parents who require that their children be excluded from religious instruction. Facilitating such opt outs is a resource based issue. Schools are committed to facilitating parents in this regard but they can only do so as resources are made available so that the school complies with its own policies re curriculum, supervision and child safeguarding. The provision of such resources is the responsibility of the Minister. However, even with current resources Catholic schools have developed local arrangements to accommodate the valid wishes of such parents, and steps are currently in hand further to develop the practical arrangements required to be put in place in this regard. Some commentators have raised concerns about the integrated curriculum with regard to this issue. It should be noted that the philosophical basis of such a curricular approach is not the desire to integrate religion into all other subjects but the pedagogical principle that subject specificities are irrelevant in early childhood learning. Thus children are introduced into an integrated world rather than one arbitrarily divided into discrete academic subjects.


(d)  Confusing terminology

In the Republic of Ireland we speak of denominational, inter-denominational and multi-denominational schools. The meaning of these terms is very unclear. Currently the Department of Education and Skills does not recognise the designation of non-denominational schooling.  Consequently, there is a tendency to speak only of denominational and multi-denominational schools and to define the latter as more open and inclusive. Inevitably, this gives rise to negative representations of denominational schools as closed and sectarian. This is completely at odds with the experience in local communities throughout the country. In this context the Catholic Schools Partnership would welcome the establishment of clearly secular, non-denominational schools providing a non-religious alternative for parents. A non-denominational school would give expression to its own ethos but it would exclude, on clearly articulated philosophical grounds, all religious symbols, rituals and formation. It is notable that no Patron is providing such an education in Ireland today. It is obviously irrational to expect Catholic Patrons to provide such education.


(e)  Primary schools

The primary school system in the Republic of Ireland has two notable characteristics. There is a preponderance of denominational schools and there are a very large number of schools per head of population. These two facts are inter-related. 97% of schools are under the patronage and management of a religious denomination (89% are Catholic). There are approximately 3,300 primary schools for a population of 4.5 million people. This is an extraordinarily high ratio of schools per capita. As a result there is a preponderance of very small schools.


Primary schools in the Republic of Ireland

No. of pupils     No. of schools     % of total

200 or less                2,300                   70%

100 or less                1,500                   45%

50 or less                     620                   19%

20 or less                     100                     3%


Many countries have established 200 pupils as the smallest suitable size for a primary school. 2,300 of our primary schools (70%) have less than this threshold of 200 pupils. This profile of a large number of small, denominational schools is a characteristic of the Irish primary school system since its inception. It is unlikely that such a large number of schools would have opened were it not for the close links with local parish communities. These parish structures were themselves a response to a uniquely scattered demographic settlement pattern whereby Ireland has a notably high ratio of rural dwellings. Even today over 50% of the citizens of the Irish Republic live in population centres of less than 5,000 persons. The contrast then with countries/states with similar populations is notable.


Country                    Population          No. primary schools          Primary school per capital

Rep of Ireland            4,500,000                        3,300                                  1,363

Nth Ireland                 1,790,000                          870                                   2,057

Scotland                      5,200,000                       2,150                                  2,418

Denmark                     5,400,000                       2,100                                  2,570

Kentucky (USA)          4,300,000                       1,100                                  3,900

Louisiana (USA)          4,500,000                      1,200                                  3,750


Not least because of the size of school enrolments, the Irish system has been dependent on local, voluntary effort with regard to management and finance. There are close on 20,000 volunteers acting on boards of management. They receive no pay, no subsistence and no travel expenses. This is a very notable example of local participatory democracy. The remarkable thing about these schools is that they are managed so well and at such little cost. In Ireland we have thousands of well functioning denominational schools. A primary school system rooted in local communities serving a dispersed population at little cost in terms of patronage and management is a notable reality in terms of social capital. This is quite remarkable in a country where all political leaders admit that the public service must become less expensive to operate and more responsive to people’s needs. Where is the evidence in any walk of Irish life demonstrating a capacity to motivate such a level of volunteerism? The only other example on such a scale is the Gaelic Athletic Association and it is notably rooted in the same parish structure as the church. What would happen to all of the small schools around the country if the system of church patronage was removed? In many small communities the only infrastructure remaining is schools and churches.


(f) Re-configuring the primary school system

Some people have called for a re-configuring of the primary school system. In 2007 the Irish Bishops stated:

It is sometimes the case that people choose the Catholic school simply because it is the only school available, and not because they wish their children to have a Catholic education. This can cause difficulties for parents who do not share the ethos of a Catholic school. It can also put an unfair financial and administrative burden on the parish. We feel that in such circumstances the Church should not be left with the task of providing for the educational needs of the whole community. As the Catholic Church accepts that there should be choice and diversity within a national education system, it believes that parents who desire schools under different patronage should, where possible, be facilitated in accessing them. In new centres of population it is incumbent upon the State to plan for the provision of school sites and to ensure, in consultation with the various patron bodies, that there is a plurality of school provision reflecting the wishes of the parents in the area. (Catholic Primary Schools: A Policy for Provision into the Future, 5.1)

In areas of stable population where there is unlikely to be any new schools over coming years some existing schools may no longer be viable as Catholic schools. In such situations the Catholic Patron, in dialogue with the local community, might make any buildings which are surplus to requirement available so that the Department of Education and Skills could plan for greater diversity of school provision in that area.


(g)  Social inclusion

In any such reconfiguration great care will need to be taken to avoid compounding other forms of social stratification. Religious affiliation is not the only measure of diversity in Ireland. Arguably, it is the least important such measure. Most religious organisations (educational and otherwise) are extraordinarily inclusive in their approach and very respectful of diversity. Catholic schools are caring and inclusive communities. They have adapted to demographic change with significant net migration into Ireland and have led the way in integrating the ‘new Irish’ into local communities. They have been leaders in areas such as special needs, social inclusion and traveller education. One of the great strengths of our primary school system has been that in most parts of the country children from various social strata have attended the same school together. In any reconfiguration there is a danger of much more streamlined social stratification as the evidence demonstrates that, given the choice, many parents will opt for a school which draws most of its pupils from the more upwardly mobile social classes. Thus the strength of our present system where most parents identify the local primary school as their school should not be underestimated.

It must be noted that parents who have a choice sometimes opt for more socially exclusive schools. This is clear in cases where people travel some distance to a school often passing by other schools. Similarly, language or the payment of fees can raise the bar of likely social participation. While the principle of parental choice must be respected the Catholic Schools Partnership believes that parents should also reflect on the common good when it comes to issues relating to schooling. In particular, Catholic fee-paying schools must make serious efforts to reach out to socially deprived communities, to pupils with special needs and to foster an ever deeper sense of social awareness among all members of their school communities. Otherwise, they risk becoming a sign that is contradictory in terms of Christ’s mission. It is the responsibility of the leaders of all schools to foster an ever deeper sense of social inclusion and service of the common good.



One of the most notable characteristics of Catholic education is a respect for faith and reason. This helps to explain why such schools are so popular throughout the world. Faith and reason can live and thrive in the same person; while one cannot be reduced to the other they both can play a dynamic role in forming and educating a mature person. The Catholic Church continues to be involved in education because it forms a central part of its mission and because there are parents who wish to have their children educated in a context which respects both faith and reason. We hope that those educated in such a context will be able to make a dynamic contribution to church and society, to faith and culture and to the further development of democratic and liberal values. Christian faith is always lived in particular cultures. The dialogue between faith and culture takes place in the heart and mind of the individual believer, in families, in parish communities and, not least, in schools and colleges. Catholic schools and colleges stand as a reminder that faith is not a purely private, irrational commitment embraced by individuals of dubious intellectual ability but a rational exercise of human conscience seeking to live life in response to belief in God. There will always be a certain tension between religious faith and culture; some people reduce culture to religious faith and so withdraw into a fundamentalist ghetto where everything outside is seen as a threat; others empty culture of all religious reference so that religious belief amounts to nothing more than personal whim and traditional superstition. A true dialogue between faith and culture allows one to inform the other and calls individuals, families, communities, and yes, our schools and colleges, to an ever greater commitment to human maturity and freedom.


This submission to the Irish Human Rights Commission was approved by the Council of the Catholic Schools Partnership at its meeeting of 10 February 2011.


Members of the Council:

Kathleen Bradley, Retired School Principal

P.J. Callanan, Catholic Primary School Management Association

Marie Carroll, Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools

Jim Cassin, Executive Secretary, Episcopal Council for Education

Patrick Collier, Conference of Religious of Ireland

David Corrigan, Conference of Religious of Ireland

Mairead Darcy, Pastoral Worker

Tom Deenihan, Diocesan Secretary, Diocese of Cork and Ross

Michael Drumm, Chairperson of Catholic Schools Partnership

June Fennelly, Conference of Religious of Ireland

Thomasina Finn, Conference of Religious of Ireland

Eileen Flynn, General Secretary, Catholic Primary School Management Association

Maighread Ní Ghallchobhair O.P., Dominican Sisters

John Hayden, Former Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority

Margaret Mary Healy, Catholic Primary School Management Association

Brendan Kelly, Bishop of Achonry and Chairman of Episcopal Council for Education

Ferdia Kelly, General Secretary, Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools / Joint Managerial Body

Gerry Lundy, Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, Northern Ireland

Anne McDonagh, Education Secretary, Archdiocese of Dublin

Mark McDonnell, Chairperson, Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools

Donal McKeown, Auxiliary Bishop of Down & Connor, Chairperson, Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Schools

Denis McNeilis, Vice Chairperson, Catholic Primary School Management Association

Maeve Mahon, Advisor for Religious Education, Diocese of Kildare & Leighlin

Paul Meany, Secondary School Principal, Marian College

Noel Merrick, President, Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools / Joint Managerial Body

Lorcan O’Brien, Moderator of the Curia, Archdiocese of Dublin

Brendan O’Reilly, Executive Secretary, Episcopal Council for Catechetics

Leo O’Reilly, Bishop of Kilmore, Chairperson, Episcopal Department for Catholic Education and Formation

Ena Quinlan, Vice President, Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools / Joint Managerial Body

Paul Scanlan, Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools

PJ Sexton, Lecturer in Education

Maria Spring, Chairperson, Catholic Primary School Management Association

Ann Walsh, Deputy Secondary School Principal