Catholic or otherwise, every child has the right to an equal education

A campaigner for human rights and equality recently submitted a petition to the Irish Government, demanding an end to religious discrimination in education.

Around  20,000 people signed this petition, asking for the Equal Status Act to be amended so that children will not be given preferential access to a state-funded school on the basis of their religion.

This raises the question that appears time and time again in relation to the Irish Education System – should state-funded schools still be controlled (directly or indirectly) by religious entities?

In Ireland, over 96 per cent of national schools are under religious patronage, with 93 per cent of these controlled by the Catholic Church.

Between 1991 and 2011, there was a 400 per cent increase in people who do not practice their religion or have no religious beliefs.

If this is the case, then the education system simply is not catering to the needs of our society and its members.

There have been reports that some parents baptise their children just in order for them to gain entry into schools, as religion is a prerequisite for immediate enrolment in certain schools.

Though it seems like a futile move, these families have little choice because there simply is not enough non-denominational schools in the country.

Not only does the education system isolate atheists, but children of other religions also.

Most national schools in Ireland teach a religious curriculum based around Christian ideology. Most primary school classrooms have a cross over their white boards, and many teachers still say a religious prayer before class begins.

The system needs to be changed to reflect the more diverse society that Ireland has become in recent years.

The teaching of religion has changed in post-primary schools in recent years, where students learn about the five major world religions instead of focusing on only one, but larger steps need to be taken.

However, this is easier said than done.

When Ruairi Quinn was the Minister for Education, he tried to transfer voluntary religious schools to non-denominational ones. Three schools in the country were transferred. Two of them were in the patronage of the Protestant Church and the third was in the patronage of the Catholic Church.

The major problem with the transfer of schools is that the Protestant and Catholic Churches own the land and school-buildings themselves, while the State funds the running of them.

This means that if schools in Ireland were to be transferred to non-religious schools, the buildings would have to be bought by the State, and this may explain why Minister Quinn’s initiative failed.

Nevertheless, the fact that Ireland’s education system is not mirroring the society in which it needs to nurture should not be pushed to the side just because one approach was unsuccessful.

An agreement between the State and the religious churches must be taken in order to ensure that each child in Ireland is given their constitutional right to an equal education.

Religion should not be the guiding force within any educational system.

Laura Roddy

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