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Religion must move outside school hours as opt-out approach fails children badly

During Communion and Confirmation season the situation is particularly bleak. The sense of othering is worse when students are from non-Irish backgrounds

I joined fellow primary teachers at INTO congress last week speaking on the issue of religion in Irish schools. Our motion passed resoundingly, notably with vocal support from numerous teachers who identified themselves as Catholic. As a result the INTO will now survey teachers on their views on faith formation in schools.

I began teaching in recent years after a career change. Between subbing and contracts I have taught in over 20 schools. The dedication, commitment and professionalism of my colleagues still amaze me and I learn so much from them.

But there is an elephant in the staffroom – religion. Specifically, it is extremely difficult to discuss the overarching centrality of Catholicism in the education system. Around 90 per cent of Irish taxpayer-funded primary schools are Catholic-ethos, that’s almost 3,000 schools. Faith formation lessons are timetabled daily and time devoted to First Communion and Confirmation preparation in second and sixth class, far in advance of the ceremonies, can be significant.

Teachers already complain of curriculum overload and many simply can’t make the hours add up when faith formation is supposed to be assigned almost as much class time each week as history, geography and science, combined.


But this doesn’t go to the heart of what was discussed at congress. Many teachers feel the “opt-out” approach to faith formation is failing children badly and putting teachers in an extremely difficult situation. The standard practice in most schools is for “opted-out” children to simply sit in class during daily faith formation lessons, not partaking. The sense of othering is particularly obvious when these children are from non-Irish backgrounds.

During First Communion and Confirmation season the situation is particularly bleak. For weeks on end, classes are divided into those preparing for a big celebration and those who are onlookers. Some try to argue the ceremonies are “inclusive” as all are welcome to attend on the big day – this is to overlook the difference between being a star for a day and being a distant spectator (at something that goes against your own beliefs). Understandably, many opted-out children are simply absent from school around this time.

Moving faith formation outside school hours would alleviate many of these issues, and this is a measure that teachers must consider.

In order to teach in most Catholic primary schools it is a requirement that teachers hold an additional certificate in religious education. At a time of large teacher shortages (the big topic at congress) speakers asked how can such a barrier to entry be allowed to persist. Not only does the requirement for the certificate severely limit the options for teachers without one, it puts people off considering entering the profession in the first place. For evidence of this, delegates at congress only needed to look around the auditorium and at their own staffrooms. The word “diversity” arose frequently during discussions but it is almost entirely absent from the teaching profession, which is essentially monocultural in nature. Staffrooms simply do not reflect the Ireland of today or the pupils in their schools.

As one delegate pointed out at congress, the INTO’s survey of teachers on religion may need to be anonymous for people to express themselves freely

The much-discussed but little-acted-on divestment process is not the answer to all this. First, it is dead in the water – since 2016 only three Catholic primary schools have transferred to multi-denominational patronage. Numerous counties in Ireland do not have a single multi-denominational school. Second, it is founded on the bizarre notion that basing an entire education system on religious difference, with children siloed into separate schools on that basis, is somehow something to strive for. Divestment is not a solution for children, parents or teachers and serves mostly as a useful distraction for those opposing systemic change.

The schools I have worked in since I started teaching have been places of learning, love and support. But there’s an elephant in the staffroom and we need to talk about it.

Can the Minister for Education guarantee that we teachers can safely talk about this? Exemptions to equality legislation mean teachers can be fired or lose out on promotion for the vague act of “undermining religious ethos”. As one delegate pointed out at congress, the INTO’s survey of teachers on religion may need to be anonymous for people to express themselves freely. This alone should cause alarm bells to ring in a democratic country. Ireland has changed – our education system must too. Faith formation should be outside school hours and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it.

Paddy Monahan is a teacher and a member of the INTO, a member of Education Equality and a Social Democrats local election candidate

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