Making an article of faith (Paul Rowe, Irish Times)

In its approach to religious instruction in primary
schools, the Government is walking itself into a situation in which it
will profoundly interfere with the religious rights of individuals,
argues Paul Rowe.

Educate Together is currently waiting for sanction to open 13 new
schools this September. If approved, this will represent the largest
single expansion of the multi-denominational network since its
inception 30 years ago and indicates the growing confidence of young
parents in Ireland in this model of education.

The Educate Together model is founded on a legal commitment to parents,
staff and children to run a school based on equality and respect
“irrespective of social, cultural or religious background”. The
approach aims to mirror our contemporary social space in which division
and discrimination on religious grounds in unacceptable.

The founding concepts are those of human rights and equality. This
provides a rich discourse between different world outlooks that is
inherently educational and respectful. From the earliest stages in
school, a firm foundation of kindness and friendly interaction can be
built using these guiding ideas. Far from being value-free, the
discourse on rights and community provides a powerful set of ethical
concepts that are echoed in almost all religions.

The Educate Together model is built around this discourse. It places
the responsibility for faith formation on the child’s family and if
they belong to one, their religious organisation. The responsibility of
the school is to provide a learning environment that is safe and
supportive of the identity of the child – whatever that is.

In practice, the Educate Together schools deliver a programme of
ethical education called the Learn Together programme. This is given
the same amount of time in the school day that is given to the Alive 0
or Follow Me programmes in Catholic or Protestant schools. The Learn
Together programme has been designed to fit the methodologies of the
revised curriculum that is used in all national schools. It is an
interesting framework that has been recognised as an example of best
practice in inter-cultural education by the EU antiracism authority.

The programme has four strands: moral and spiritual development;
equality and justice; belief systems; and ethics and the environment.
Religion is explored in the belief systems strand. In this, children
are helped to find out about the main belief traditions in the world,
including the great religions and the humanistic and non-religious
outlooks. The school promotes a respectful interchange between these
viewpoints while carefully declining to promote anyone.

The aim of this programme is to allow young children to appreciate, be
informed and be comfortable with those of differing faiths to
themselves. This empowers them to critically interact across viewpoints
within a common language of human rights and respect.

At the same time, the board of management of an Educate Together school
makes its facilities available to any group of parents who so wish to
run specific faith-formations classes. These take place outside the
compulsory school day. For instance, Catholic parents organise
sacramental preparation classes this way and many Educate Together
children are prepared for confession, communion and confirmation in
services organised through their local parish.

This approach ensures that no child is made to feel that they are an
outsider as a result of their identity. It avoids situations in which
children are separated or absented from any part of the school
programme because of their family’s religious views. It also ensures
that no teacher is placed in a position where they must teach as
religious truth a viewpoint they may not believe. The out-of-hours
faith-formation facility assists the full rights of families. In many
Educate Together schools, these are held as part of a range of
extramural activities that ensure that they are fully integrated with
the life of the school community. It is legally integrated and
completely compatible with equality legislation

This approach is very different from that being imposed on parents in
Dublin 15 by a government decision to pilot a VEC community national
school. As recent documents released under Freedom of Information
procedures show, the three schools involved have already been
pre-configured to ensure that Catholic faith-formation classes will be
offered within the compulsory school day.

Children will be registered according to the religious identity of
their parents, and teachers will be required to supervise their
separation at set times during the week. Only those faiths considered
to be the “main religions in the school community” will be provided
with State-funded faith-formation teachers, and those that do not
qualify will be taught a common ethics programme.

The approach will depend on the State being able to argue that such
unequal treatment is reasonable under the Equal Status Acts. It also
opens the spectre of the State having to establish quotas – whereby
certain religions can qualify as “main” – and employ inspectors to
validate the religious allegiance of families and a teacher’s religious
qualifications.

The Government appears to be unwittingly walking itself into a
situation in which it will profoundly interfere with the religious
rights of individuals and in which it will have to seek the power to
approve religious faiths. The growing popularity of the Educate
Together model would suggest that an increasing number of Irish parents
have already chosen a more modern and integrated approach.

Paul Rowe is the CEO of Educate Together.

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