The Case for a Secular Education System
Population Diversity/Changes in Religious Practices
While Ireland has an education system that is recognised internationally as being of an exemplary standard, it is increasingly failing to meet the demands of the Irish citizens in the twenty first century with regard to equality. The population has diversified to an extent that could not have been imagined at the time our Constitution was first drafted in 1936. We have ever increasing numbers of non-Christian immigrants who are making their home in every town and village throughout Ireland. Likewise Ireland is rapidly catching up with the ideals of secular Europe. The numbers of people who regularly attend church services are dwindling and for many people, their only experience of Church life is for celebrations and funerals. The number of people who identify themselves as non-religious or Atheist/Agnostic is also on the increase.
The Rise of Islamic Extremism
The case of an Islamic splinter cell arrested by the Gardai for the attempted assassination of Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks is a harrowing reminder that Islamic fundamentalism is no longer only a concern of Britain, Continental Europe or America. Such fundamentalism thrives on the segregation of communities. By the State continuing to allow education to be delivered at primary and secondary level through the formation of boards of management committees, mainly of a religious ethos, we are losing control of what is being taught to our children and could potentially open the door to the recruitment of Islamic fundamentalists in the future.
The Irish Constitution/EU Charter on Human Rights
Article 44 of our constitution guarantees religious equality for all Irish citizens. In particular it states
"3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the grounds of religious profession, belief or status".
Yet this is exactly what our education system does. It discriminates against non-believers and those of religious minorities. In theory it allows for the establishment of secular boards of management, and the Educate Together model at primary level has had tremendous success in its roll out over the last ten years. Likewise a number of schools run by trustees of non-Christian faiths have also been established. Yet this system cannot provide for every different person of faith or non-belief. What about a Muslim living in rural Ireland? It would be practically impossible to cater for his/her faith under the present model. Likewise parents who wish to have their children bought up under an ethos of critical thought, and are of the belief that morality should be taught with regard to evidence based systems and not handed down by "gods", also have their constitutional rights denied under the present system, especially when they live in remote areas or when all the places in the nearest Educate Together School have been filled. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union also states in Article 14
"Right to education
It is clear that our current education model clearly favours the majority Catholic religion and is therefore in breach of both the Irish constitution and the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Human Rights. Even when Catholic schools grant exclusions from religious instruction to students of other religions or non-belief, such segregation of children still violates their dignity and sets a dismal example for society.
The integration of children from every strata of society offers a valuable learning experience in itself. Children will see different cultures and belief systems and will be better able to critically evaluate them. Collective ideas offer the best solution to any given problem. The idea of segregation of children, or adults for that matter, on the basis of religion or any other societal indicator should rightly be considered outdated.
The Rights of Teachers
The fact that over 90% of our primary schools are still in the hands of Catholic run boards of management places an intolerable level of religious and philosophical discrimination on teachers. Such a system forces teachers into hypocrisy. The vast majority of people under 25 have no allegiance to the Catholic Church and in many cases are vehemently opposed to its teachings and ideology, yet they are forced to take part in the teaching of religious instruction. An openly gay or lesbian teacher could face disciplinary action or loss of their job under the present system. Such an event in any other profession would rightly be condemned. Likewise a devout Muslim would find it extremely difficult or impossible to become a primary school teacher in a non-Muslim faith based school.
Preparation for Religious Ceremonies during School Hours
It could be argued that the time spent in preparation for first communion and confirmation is an expense that should not be burdened upon the taxpayer. Such preparations may take considerable time out of the school day and in effect is an indirect payment by the taxpayer to the church. Again teachers who do not share these beliefs are being coerced into preparing children for ceremonies they do not themselves believe in. Such an action is gross hypocrisy out of necessity. Further to this, priests have complained that parents are ill-prepared for ceremonial occasions. If parents are really adamant to transfer their faith to their children, surely a demonstration of commitment would be shown if they took the time to do the preparation work along with the clergy and other interested parties outside of the school day.
The teaching of Pseudo-science
Religion is a powerful motivating factor for the teaching of Pseudo-science that is part of their core belief system. The best and most pernicious example of this is the teaching of so called "Intelligent Design" in some American States. Kansas State was the first to introduce this into their school system in 2005. The term came about as a result of the US constitutional ban on the teaching of religion in schools. Creationism rebranded itself as Intelligent Design and won a court battle to have it taught alongside Darwinian evolution in Biology class. There is no controversy among scientists as to the authenticity of Darwinian evolution as the mechanism that produces higher life forms. Intelligent Design Pseudo-theory has already made its way to Europe. Likewise Muslims do not believe in Darwinian evolution through natural selection. Science should teach differing view points only when they are legitimate, otherwise they will teach students not to value the scientific discipline to gather evidence and critically evaluate it before presenting it as an argument worth having. Intelligent design has no such logical argument and is purely fictional.
Concerns about the Viability of Boards of Management
Apart from religious concerns, many of those volunteering to act on boards of management have legitimate fears of personal litigation, as they may be held personally liable for compensation due to injury of students on the school premises. The State has been absolved from any responsibility in the day to day running of schools. If we were to become more litigious as a society, this could deter volunteers from coming forward to sit on committees.
Desire of the Majority of the People of Ireland
Only a generation ago those who would have advocated that the religious clergy should not be running our schools would have been labeled extreme or a radical and would have been within a tiny minority. This is no longer the case. The findings of the Ryan and Murphy report into child sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy probably had some part in our change of attitude to how our education system should be managed. But also many parents are now of the opinion that it is not their role to brand their children with any particular religion, but rather to instill values of human kindness and critical thinking. This is evident in the large number of Catholic parents who send their children to Educate Together schools. The largest poll ever undertaken in relation to parents and teachers attitudes was carried out in 2008 commissioned by the Irish Primary School Principals Association and the RedC. It revealed that 72% of parents wanted primary schools to be managed by the State with an equal emphasis on all religions. 57% of parents also wished to have the number of hours in which religion was taught reduced and more emphasis on physical and health education. Two out of three primary school principals also expressed a wish to have schools managed by the State. The proposed VEC model of multi-faith schools with religion being taught in school hours was perceived as being impossible to implement by 80% of primary principals. Another poll commissioned by MRBI and the Irish Times in 2009 yielded similar findings. Clearly the people of Ireland desire a radical change in education policy.