Atheist Ireland letter to Minister for Education about inclusiveness in primary schools

Atheist Ireland has sent this letter to the Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn, and we have copied it to the CEO of the National Parents Council Primary Áine Lynch, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority.

Re: Consultation on Inclusiveness in Schools 

Dear Minister,

We appreciate that you are taking the time to consult parents on Inclusiveness in Schools. It is a huge issue for us as we get complaints from parents all the time on how their children are denied their basic rights. All of these complaints raise serious human rights issues.

We are concerned that the Leaflet for Parents compiled by your office and the National Parents Council has left out the main human rights issue that the UN Human Rights Committee has raised concern about. It is also a Recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism and the Irish Human Rights Commission.

In their Concluding Observations in 2008 (CCPR/C/IRL/CO/3) the UN stated that:-

“22. The Committee notes with concern that the vast majority of Ireland’s primary schools are privately run denominational schools that have adopted a religious integrated curriculum thus depriving many parents and children who so wish to have access to secular primary education. (arts. 2, 18, 24, 26).”

Article 2 is freedom from discrimination, Article 18 is the right to freedom of conscience, Article 24 is the rights of the child and Article 26 is equality before the law.

These comments raise very basic human rights issue and as you will note the UN refer specifically to secular parents and their children. The UN referred to the religious integrated curriculum in Primary schools, but despite this it was left out of the Leaflet for Parents on inclusiveness in schools. It is difficult to understand how schools can be inclusive while at the same time breaching the human rights of secular parents and their children.

The Irish Human Rights Commission, in their Report, Religion & Education: A Human Rights Perspective, May 2011, raised this issue and Recommended that:-

“Section 15 of the Education Act should be amended to provide for modifications to the integrated curriculum to ensure that the rights of minority faith or non faith children are also recognised therein. In this regard, the State must take sufficient care that information and knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner with the aim of enabling pupils to develop a critical mind with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere which is free of any misplaced proselytism.”

The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism has made the following Recommendation.

“The Curriculum Guidelines

The Advisory Group recommends that the introduction to the Primary Curriculum should be revised to ensure that, while the general curriculum remains integrated, provision is made for denominational religious education/faith formation to be taught as a discrete subject.

The Advisory Group recommends that, as a first step and in line with the general view expressed at the Forum, Rule 68 should be deleted as soon as possible.”

The UN Human Rights Committee has raised the issue again in their recent questions to the State under the list of issues in relation to the fourth periodic report of Ireland with regard to the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. Ireland is to appear before the Committee in July 2014. They have asked:-

“26. Please provide information on steps being taken to ensure that the right of children of minority religions or non-faith are also recognized in the Education Act 1998, and the number of non-denominational primary schools that have been established during the reporting period.

Please also clarify whether there is an accessible and independent complaint handling mechanism to resolve disputes between parents and schools.”

The Toledo Guiding Principles are based on human rights and in particular the right to freedom of conscience. Ireland is a member of the OSCE and has not rejected the Toledo Guiding Principles. Out of the 56 States in the OSCE the Holy See is the only one that has rejected the Toledo Guiding Principles. The reason they gave is as follows:-

“Furthermore, the Holy See has noted the upcoming presentation of the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools and is surprised. While recognizing that they were prepared by the Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion, it is difficult to understand why participating States, especially the Holy See that speaks openly on matters of religion, were not consulted. The Document contains a reductive view of religion and a conception of the secular nature of States and their neutrality that obfuscates the positive role of religion, its specific nature and contribution to society. In doing so, the document contradicts what has always marked the OSCE’s understanding of religion.”

If the State continues to provide ‘for’ the education of minorities in standalone schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church, then it must protect those minorities from the integrated curriculum which infringes on their human rights. It is clear that it is Catholic Church teaching that is causing this problem, and the State has a duty to disentangle the State curriculum, which is for all citizens, from this Catholic Church teaching.

Given the level of recommendations regarding the removal of the religious integrated curriculum, we cannot understand why it was left out of the Leaflet for Parents. As it stands, schools are not obliged to even write down where they are integrating religion into the state curriculum, and consequently secular parents cannot ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their philosophical convictions.

Minister, we would like to ask you a specific question about this.

What is the reason for leaving out of the Leaflet for Parents the very issue that the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism and the Irish Human Rights Commission are raising? And what can you do at this stage to rectify that omission?

We would really appreciate a response, as it does seem that the human rights of secular parents and their children are just being ignored again.

Atheist Ireland