Educate Together is undermining the duty of the Irish State to provide non-denominational schools

Educate Together has made two statements recently that undermine the duty of the Irish Government to provide secular education though new non-denominational schools, as required by the UN Human Rights Committee.

Educate Together is doing this by blurring the distinction between multi-denominational schools (which Educate Together schools are) and non-denominational schools (which the UN Human Rights Committee has told Ireland to provide access to).

Educate Together is creating the impression that, by providing more Educate Together schools, the UN’s requirements would be satisfied. This is not correct. There would still be no non-denominational schools.

Educate Together is also using the UN’s requirements to seek more funding for more Educate Together schools. But if this and only this happens, then there will be less money for non-denominational schools.

Clearly Educate Together schools are good for parents who want a multi-denominational education for their children. But they do not satisfy the requirement for non-denominational education that the UN has told Ireland to also provide.

Indeed, Educate Together cannot satisfy the requirements of the UN, because those requirements are aimed at the Irish State and not at Educate Together.

The distinction between denominational, multi-denominational and non-denominational schools is central to the idea of secular education.

Educate Together has up to now clearly and formally recognised this distinction, and has indeed denied requests to become non-denominational rather than multi-denominational.

But they are now blurring the distinction by claiming that they are non-denominational, and are thus undermining the case for funding of actual non-denominational schools.

This article explains the difference between the two kinds of school, the background to Educate Together’s recent ambiguous statements, and why this must not be allowed to undermine the case for the Irish Government to fund secular education through new non-denominational schools.

It covers:
1. What is the difference between these types of school?
2. What the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland
3. Educate Together’s recent press statement
4. Educate Together’s recent blog post
5. What the Educate Together model does not provide
6. What the Educate Together model can not provide
7. The State’s duty to provide secular education

1. What is the difference between these types of school?

The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism makes the following distinction between multi-denominational and non-denominational schools:

Multi-denominational patronage:
In the Irish context, two types of primary schools are categorised as multi-denominational:

• firstly, those schools that do not provide religious education as formation, during the school day, but do provide education about religions and beliefs. If they so desire, parents may arrange for denominational religious education outside school hours in such schools.

• secondly, those schools that provide education about religions and also provide some faith formation for different denominations, depending on parental requests, during the school day, over a 3 or 4 week period.

Non-denominational Patronage:
Schools under the patronage of a secular body and which has an explicitly secular ethos. This does not preclude the provision of a programme on education about religion. As yet, there are no non-denominational national schools in Ireland.

Educate Together in its submission to the Forum makes the following distinction between multi-denominational and non-denominational schools:

“It is important to note the definition of multi-denominational provided in the Educate Together Charter and the way in which this principle is understood and lived out in the schools. The onus on schools to guarantee equality extends beyond just religious or non-religious belief; it embraces social, cultural and other facets of identity.

In Educate Together schools, all members of the school community are encouraged to share their religious and non-religious beliefs with the whole school community. In this way children develop the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to interact critically across different viewpoints within an atmosphere of equal respect. School facilities are often made available to families wishing to organise faith formation classes, such as those which prepare children for the Catholic sacraments. These classes operate on an ‘opt-in’ basis outside the compulsory school day.

This model is also distinct from the common perception of a non-denominational or secular model. In such a strictly secular model, religious symbols or practice are sometimes restricted or prohibited in a school, and there is not always an explicit moral and ethical curriculum. In Educate Together schools, Moral and Spiritual development is actively taught through the Learn Together curriculum. Different religious and non-religious festivals are regularly celebrated by the school community to develop understanding and respect for different traditions.”

Atheist Ireland has several times asked Educate Together to consider becoming non-denominational rather than multi-denominational. We have been told, including by CEO Paul Rowe, that this would not be possible without a vote at an AGM.

2. What the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland

This is what the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland in Geneva in July:

“The Human Rights Committee is concerned about the slow progress in increasing access to secular education through the establishment of non-denominational schools, divestment of the patronage of schools and the phasing out of integrated religious curricula in schools accommodating minority faith or non-faith children.

Ireland should introduce legislation to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion, belief or other status, and ensure that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State party to meet the needs of minority faith or non-faith children.”

In the questions that led to this recommendation, the UN clearly made a distinction between multi-denominational and non-denominational schools. Here are some of the questions the UN asked Ireland:

“Finally, the final question that I have is issue number 26, which deals with the question of non-denominational schools.
The number of non-denominational schools in Ireland is still minuscule, and it is our understanding that most of the new schools that have been opened have been multi-denominational and not non-denominational.

It is also our understanding that there are no current plans to create non-denominational schools by way of transfer of control in those areas where it has been deemed, following the recommendations of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary sector, that there is no sufficient demand for such education.

Could you please explain to the the Committee how the notion of insufficient demand would not justify the establishment of non-denominational primary schools?

And what would be the fate of parents and children in those areas, in the no-demand areas, what would be their fate in terms of access to non-denominational education?”

So the UN Human Rights Committee explicitly separates the concepts of multi-denominational and non-denominational schools. And it is explicitly concerned that most of the new schools that have been opened have been multi-denominational and not non-denominational.

In its response to some of these questions, the Irish Government acknowledged that there are no secular or non-denominational schools in Ireland. They told the UN:

“With regard to Mr Shany’s comments about non-denominational education, as noted in the Forum report, there is no obstacle to the establishment of secular or non-denominational schools if sought by a sufficiently large number of parents, and if the requirements for patronage are fulfilled.”

So the Irish State accepts that there are no secular or non-denominational schools in Ireland. It ignored the UN question about how the notion of insufficient demand would justify the failure to establish non-denominational schools, but it acknowledged that there are none.

3. Educate Together’s recent press statement

Despite this, Educate Together has recently made two statements that undermine the case for the Irish Government to fund secular education though new nondenominational schools, as recommended by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Firstly, on the day of the ICCL Press Conference announcing the response of some Civil Society groups to the UN report, Educate Together issued a press statement that said the following:

“The Educate Together model of schooling satisfies all the requirements envisaged by the UN Human Rights Committee. Educate Together has no affiliation to any religious organisation and is thus ‘non-denominational’. In the operation of its schools Educate Together respects the background of all children equally and does not promote any particular religious or other beliefs.”

It is simply false for Educate Together to claim in this context that it is non-denominational. It is false based on its own consistent self-description as the representative body for multi-denominational education in Ireland. It is false based on its own distinction in its own forum submission between Educate Together schools and non-denominational schools. It is also false based on Educate Together explicitly telling Atheist Ireland that it not non-denominational, and that it could not become non-denominational without a vote at its AGM.

The Educate Together press statement also said:

“The current government led programme of parental preference surveys and proposals for re-assignment of provision in 28 areas is a welcome start. However, one of the key obstacles is the determination of the government that this programme should be a ‘no cost’ programme. This is unrealistic. For instance, the work to establish a new school costs Educate Together an average of €95,000. It is not credible for the government to have a major strategic programme of infrastructural change without appropriate funding. We call on the government to immediately allocate a minimum of €5million for this programme in the current three year budget cycle.”

It is self-serving for Educate Together, at the expense of possible non-denominational schools, to use the UN Report to plead for Government funding for (in the context of the earlier assertion) providing more Educate Together schools. More Educate Together schools are certainly welcome for parents who want multi-denominational education for their children. But if this and only this happens, then there will be less money for non-denominational schools, which is what the UN Report was primarily calling for.

4. Educate Together’s recent blog post

Atheist Ireland raised these issues with Educate Together after the ICCL press conference, in particular the distinction between non-denominational and multi-denominational schools. Last Friday, in a blog post on the Educate Together website, CEO Paul Rowe blurred this distinction even more. He wrote:

“Last week, it was great to hear the United Nations Human Rights Committee once again recommended that the Irish State increase the availability of non-denominational schools in Ireland.

I’m not going to get into the discussion over the labels “non-denominational”,  “secular” and “multi-denominational” here but suffice to say, the Educate Together model of schooling satisfies all the requirements envisaged by the UN.”

This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the UN requirements. The Educate Together model of schooling does not satisfy all of the requirements envisaged by the UN.

Indeed, it cannot satisfy all of the requirements envisaged by the UN.

This is because the UN requirements are not aimed at Educate Together. The UN requirements are aimed at the Irish State.

There are various UN requirements relating to establishing non-denominational schools, divestment of the patronage of schools, the phasing out of integrated religious curricula in denominational schools, prohibiting discrimination in access to schools, and ensuring that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State.

State funding of schools based on the Educate Together model partly satisfies one of these requirements, which is that the Irish State should “ensure that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State party.”

But State funding of schools based on the Educate Together model does not satisfy all of that requirement. That would also require State funding of explicitly non-denominational schools, which are different to the Educate Together model.

In fairness, the blog post ends with this caveat:

“Why do we continue to accept such a situation? Why is it not acceptable for all political parties to agree that it is essential for the future of Irish society that there should be a national network of schools that deliver the same guarantees of equality of access and esteem as the Educate Together model? For the avoidance of doubt, they don’t have to be run by Educate Together – any State or voluntary organisation could provide them as long as they are held accountable for maintaining the same standards of equality of access and esteem.”

But, while this recognises that new schools need not be run by Educate Together, it still assumes that “the same guarantees of equality of access and esteem as the Educate Together model” is all that is needed to satisfy the UN requirements.

This is not correct.

5. What the Educate Together model does not provide

Firstly, to state the obvious, the Educate Together model officially describes itself as multi-denominational. However, like RTE officially calling the Angelus ‘The Angelus’, while claiming that it is not the Angelus but a moment of reflection for everyone, Educate Together is now calling itself multi-denominational, while claiming that it is actually non-denominational. Or else it is calling itself non-denominational, while claiming that it is actually multi-denominational. Whichever way you choose to look at it, this is the type of nod-and-wink approach to public discourse that we should be trying to move away from in Ireland.

Secondly, Educate Together itself, in its submission to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, describes some of the things that the Educate Together model does not provide in terms of secular education:

“[The Educate Together] model is also distinct from the common perception of a non-denominational or secular model. In such a strictly secular model, religious symbols or practice are sometimes restricted or prohibited in a school, and there is not always an explicit moral and ethical curriculum.

In Educate Together schools, Moral and Spiritual development is actively taught through the Learn Together curriculum. Different religious and non-religious festivals are regularly celebrated by the school community to develop understanding and respect for different traditions.”

So how would a non-denominational or secular school differ from an Educate Together model school, based on Educate Together’s own published criteria on why Educate Together is not non-denominational?

A non-denominational or secular school would restrict or prohibit religious symbols, as well as organised religious practice, or most religious practice, or would not organise religious practice.

A non-denominational or secular school would provide an ethics programme, but it would not combine moral and spiritual development as part of an ethics programme. A secular school would recognise that morality is independent of spirituality.

A non-denominational or secular school would not regularly celebrate different religious festivals, in order to develop understanding and respect for different traditions. Instead, it would approach such an aim by teaching about different traditions in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

A non-denominational or secular school might not make school facilities available to families wishing to organise faith formation classes, such as those which prepare children for the Catholic sacraments. If it did permit this, it would not describe such faith formation, as Educate Together does, by saying “These classes operate on an ‘opt-in’ basis outside the compulsory school day.” It would simply view them as external bodies, such as a chess club, hiring the school facilities independently of the school curriculum and nothing to do with the school day.

A non-denominational or secular school would not integrate an ethos that includes the above elements throughout the school day, in the way that Educate Together schools do with their integrated curriculum. Just because the Educate Together ethos is more palatable than the ethos of Catholic schools, we should not forget that they are still integrating an ethos that celebrates religious festivals, and that combines morality with spirituality.

A non-denominational or secular school would not focus on the religious beliefs of the parents of its pupils. It would not issue a press statement about one of its reports, as Educate Together did in October 2012, headed: “50% of pupils in Educate Together schools are Catholic”, which stated that “while having pupils from other religious denominations or none among the student body, multi-denominational school populations are 50 per cent Catholic. In fact, mothers in multi-denominational schools are as likely to describe themselves as very religious or spiritual as mothers in Catholic schools.”

6. What the Educate Together model can not provide

The above are some example of what the Educate Together model does not provide for parents who want a non-denominational education for their children. Now here are some examples of what the Educate Together model can not provide, because of the current state of Irish law.

Firstly, Educate Together, like the Catholic Church, are not organs of the State. They are therefore exempted from the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights Act, and pupils or their parents do not have access to the protection of that Convention if they have complaints against Educate Together schools. For wider context, this problem would also exist even if the Irish State funded non-denominational schools under the current patronage system.

Secondly, despite the Louise O’Keeffe case, the Irish Government has yet to put in place an effective remedy for parents whose children are denied human rights in any Irish schools, whether denominational or Educate Together. Again, for wider context, this problem would also exist even if the Irish State funded non-denominational schools under the current patronage system.

Also related to this issue, the UN Committee had previously told Ireland to provide an independent complaints mechanism for parents in disputes with schools. Educate Together was recently questioned about this by a Seanad Committee, and replied: “On the fourth question, from Senator Zappone, Educate Together does not have a view that having an independent complaints mechanism in this area necessarily would move things forward.” So, however ambiguously it is phrased, Educate Together does not endorse this UN requirement.

Finally, in its press statement on the day of the ICCL press conference, Educate Together said:

“The current government led programme of parental preference surveys and proposals for re-assignment of provision in 28 areas is a welcome start.”

But this contradicts the line of questioning by the UN Human Rights Committee, who said:

“It is also our understanding that there are no current plans to create non-denominational schools by way of transfer of control in those areas where it has been deemed, following the recommendations of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary sector, that there is no sufficient demand for such education.

Could you please explain to the the Committee how the notion of insufficient demand would not justify the establishment of non-denominational primary schools?

And what would be the fate of parents and children in those areas, in the no-demand areas, what would be their fate in terms of access to non-denominational education?”

So the UN Human Rights Committee rejects the idea of parental preference surveys as a justification for not providing non-denominational schools. This fits in with the UN Human Rights Committee’s firm statement to Ireland on the question of abortion law, that majority votes can not be used to justify the denial of human rights. The parental survey approach is a local manifestation of the ‘majority rule’ denial of human rights that the UN rejects.

7. The duty of the Irish State to provide secular education

Two of the UN Human Rights Committee’s questions about education, when taken together, go to the heart of the problem and its best solution.

How does the Delegation explain the compatibility with the Covenant of a state of affairs that allows private schools, which have a near monopoly in Ireland on a vital public service, to openly discriminate in admission policies between children on the basis of their parents’ religious convictions?

Is [the Irish State] considering a significant rise in the number of schools transferred to public hands?

Ultimately, the core problem with the Irish education system is that the State provides ‘for’ education, instead of simply providing education. Ultimately, the patronage system itself must be changed, and the State must provide education directly.

As well as respecting human rights, this would also be good for society. As the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education recently concluded:

Multiple patronage and ethos as a basis for policy can lead to segregation and inequality in the education system. The objectives of admission policy should be equality and integration.

Until we have this in place, the minimum requirements are that we comply with our human rights obligations. The UN Human Rights Committee has just encapsulated some of these:

“The Human Rights Committee is concerned about the slow progress in increasing access to secular education through the establishment of non-denominational schools, divestment of the patronage of schools and the phasing out of integrated religious curricula in schools accommodating minority faith or non-faith children.

Ireland should introduce legislation to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion, belief or other status, and ensure that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State party to meet the needs of minority faith or non-faith children.”

The Irish State should immediately implement these requirements, recognising that they are minimum standards to be built on, and not maximum suggestions to be revised downwards.

Andrew D

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