Sunday 16 September 2007

On Religion in Schools

Niall Gormley has thrown his hat into the ring on the current debate about school management in Ireland - Hands Off Church Schools, Northside People, 12th September 2007. In doing so he invokes fiery, McCarthyite rhetoric, suggesting that's it's all a plot on the part of unidentified liberals to ostracise the Catholic Church and take away control of 'their' schools from them.

As a matter of fact the issues at stake are really quite simple so there is no need to convolute the debate. The problem to be addressed is the removal of religious instruction from the realm of public education. This doesn't even entail the end of religious education itself. It's simply the partisan and proselytising aspects of religion that can have no place in a system which, Niall himself informs us, is 95% state funded.

Further to this it is the state which devises the various curricula and issues guidelines that all schools have to follow. So all in all there really isn't much scope for 'choice' in the type of education parents provide for their children in sending them to Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish schools etc. It could equally be argued that the Educate Together model, in offering non-denominational education, does not extend the scope for choice either. From the standpoint of providing 'educational alternatives' only the gaelscoileanna are offering a unique and distinctive brand but even here the same questions to do with school management arise. What is the broad thrust of education in society? What are it's objectives and how does it serve the common good?

There is no rational reason why children of all faiths and none cannot be educated 'under one roof' so to speak (not to be taken as a comment on the general level of provision for education in this country) once the education system in Ireland steps up to the mark and starts to base itself on an ethos that is universal. So why do we persist in this country in funding a system of segregated education? Does Niall Gormley believe that the state has an obligation to teach 'creationism' alongside Darwinian evolution? Well even if he does, simple economic realism will ensure that this will never happen. Are we really going to send a generation of educationally disadvantaged, Irish youth out into the world and still claim that we have equipped them well for whatever the future has in store? It would be a very drastic change of policy and would most certainly signal the end of the so-called 'celtic tiger'. So does Niall Gormley have a better model for development? If so he should tell us. He might just be the saviour we've all been waiting for.

Personally I am sceptical that this debate has anything at all to do with religion, or even education for that matter. However it may well have everything to do with another, far more pernicious form of segregation which exists in Irish society, in common with all societies. Could it be that the 'parents' right to choose' argument is really just a convenient figleaf to disguise a reluctance on the part of certain sections of the rich in society (even if only relatively rich) to send their children to the same schools as the poor (be it relative or absolute poverty)? Is equality best achieved by raising everyone up or by dragging everyone down? That is the real crux of the question.

14th September, 2007

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2007

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