The National Council for Curriculum & Assessment has a positive obligation to protect human rights

Atheist Ireland recently met with the NCCA and presented them with a Document named; Respecting the philosophical convictions of atheist/secular families in the education system.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment are developing a course on Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERB). Given the legal framework in Ireland, and the fact that we have direct experience of a Religious Education course at second level, we requested that our right to exempt our children from this course is recognised and guaranteed.

The NCCA has a positive obligation to protect the human rights of the non-religious in the education system. We cannot see how this course will promote respect for our human rights, given the fact that the NCCA have no power to ensure that schools deliver this course in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner and in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and human rights law.

In response to our meeting, the NCCA asked that we rename our Document “For General Education Policy-Respecting he Philosophical Convictions of Atheist/Secular Families in the Education System”, and address it to the Dept of Education & Skills. The NCCA also informed us that how the curriculum transacts in the education system is the direct responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills and that our Document relates to the implementation of the curriculum and local school policy.

In response to the above Atheist Ireland has sent the following letter to the NCCA with a copy to the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission.

“We appreciate that the NCCA are keenly aware of the rights of parents, the right to private and family life, the right to respect an individual’s philosophical convictions and the need for objective, critical and pluralist teaching in Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics.

We would like to point out again that we want to opt our children into an education about religion and beliefs and ethics and one that is based on the Toledo Guiding Principles.

We do not agree that it may be appropriate to rename our Document, “For General Education Policy-Respecting the Philosophical Convictions of Atheist/Secular Families in the Education System” and direct it to the Department of Education & Skills. The Department of Education & Skills is already well aware of these issues.

We are engaging with the NCCA as an ‘organ of the state’, and as an ‘organ of the state’ the NCCA has a positive obligation to protect our human rights.

We are directing the Document to the NCCA because we are requesting an opt out from the proposed new ERB course, precisely because the NCCA has no responsibility on how it will transact in the education system and have no control over local school policy. The purpose of the Document is for the NCCA to recognise and understand your positive obligations under human rights law to protect our human rights.

In their General Comment 31 –The Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that:

“4. The obligations of the Covenant in general and article 2 in particular are binding on every State Party as a whole. All branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), and other public or governmental authorities, at whatever level – national, regional or local – are in a position to engage the responsibility of the State Party.
“8……However the positive obligations on States Parties to ensure Covenant rights will only be fully discharged if individuals are protected by the State, not just against violations of Covenant rights by its agents, but also against acts committed by private persons or entities that would impair the enjoyment of Covenant rights in so far as they are amenable to application between private persons or entities.”

There is a difference between being keenly aware of our human rights and guaranteeing them on the ground. The comments regarding your responsibility in the education system can only mean that the NCCA cannot fulfill the Recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism with regard to the ERB Course and the Toledo Guiding Principles.

The Recommendation from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism reads:

Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB), and Ethics
The Advisory Group is of the view that all children have the right to receive education in ERB and Ethics and the State has the responsibility to ensure that this is provided.

The Advisory Group requests that the NCCA, with assistance from the partners and mindful of existing programmes, should develop curriculum and teacher guidelines for ERB and Ethics, in line with the Toledo Principles, the RedCo, and the Cambridge Primary Review.”

Based on your letter, the NCCA cannot comply with the Recommendation from the Forum because it has no control over how the curriculum transacts in the education system or local school policy. In addition, the Primary Schools curriculum does not respect our philosophical convictions.

Addressing implementation issues

However, the NCCA can and does address implementation issues, even if you cannot control the implementation itself. We therefore ask you to explicitly address in your proposals the human rights implications of the implementation of this curriculum, now that we have brought them to your attention, and to prepare recommendations that can only be implemented consistently with protecting our human rights.

For example, we are concerned that your document ‘Primary School Curriculum
Introduction, 1999’, says the following:

“In the presentation of content and in the exploration of approaches and
methodologies the curriculum assumes that schools, in the process of planning its implementation, will adapt and interpret the curriculum where necessary to meet their own unique requirements.” (p11)

“[The board of management] therefore has a responsibility in supporting and facilitating the planning and implementation of the curriculum in the school and in formally approving the school plan.” (p22)

“Partnership and co-operation among management, parents and teachers will also characterise the successful planning and implementation of the curriculum in primary
schools.” (p28)

“These goals will only be achieved if the philosophy, aims and objectives of the curriculum are realised in its implementation.” (p75)

Also, there is a chapter in the document specifically addressing curriculum implementation, which elaborates on these principles.

We ask that any such statements and chapters in the new proposals should be qualified by explicitly outlining the legal requirement to respect the human rights of pupils and parents, and the steps necessary to vindicate this in practice.

Right to Opt Out
Finally, the NCCA as an ‘organ of the state’ has a positive obligation to recognise and protect our human rights. You cannot protect our human rights if you cannot control the implementation of the curriculum.

We therefore also ask again that you explicitly recognise our right to opt out of this proposed ERB course, as you cannot guarantee that it will respect our human rights and be in accordance with the Recommendation from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.

Atheist Ireland