Educate Together distances itself from its own policy and ethos
An Educate Together AGM motion this year called for admission policies that, if implemented, would indirectly discriminate against Catholics. Atheist Ireland opposes this. Educate Together has published a statement that attributes absurdity, dishonesty and ignorance to Atheist Ireland’s analysis of this. We agree with Educate Together’s conclusion that “facts are important.” So let us look at the facts.
Firstly, Educate Together has conflated two claims when it says:
“To repeatedly claim that Educate Together discriminates against, or seeks to discriminate against, children from religious families is both ignorant and offensive.”
It is of course inaccurate to claim that Educate Together discriminates against Catholics. Atheist Ireland has never made that claim. Educate Together is not legally permitted to discriminate against Catholics, because the law allows only religious schools to discriminate on the ground of religion. Atheist Ireland and Educate Together agree that religious schools should not be allowed to discriminate in this way.
What Atheist Ireland is saying is that Educate Together’s policy is to seek to influence public policy, in a way that would allow their schools to give priority to certain families, and which in turn would inevitably indirectly discriminate against Catholics. This claim is accurate, and it is important that it should be highlighted. This is the core of this difference of policy between Atheist Ireland and Educate Together.
In this article we will address directly the claims that Educate Together has made about Atheist Ireland. We would appreciate if Educate Together would then reciprocate, by addressing directly the motion passed at their 2015 AGM, and engaging directly with the arguments made in favour of changing this policy.
What is Educate Together’s policy, and what would it lead to?
The following motion was passed as policy at Educate Together’s 2015 AGM.
“This AGM asks ET to enter into discussions with the DES to replace the concept of a geographical catchment area in the admissions policy of ET second level schools with criteria which give priority to ET primary feeder schools until such time as there are sufficient ET second level schools to cater for ET primary schools, and thus ensure that children from ET primary schools have access to second level schools under the continued patronage of ET and in line with parental choice.”
Also, at primary school level, the Department of Education has a new, and reasonable, policy of new schools giving priority to local children, by geographical catchment area. Educate Together has expressed “serious concerns” to the Department of Education that this policy should not apply to Educate Together schools, as they want to be able to give priority to families from outside the school’s local area, who cannot get access to their local Catholic schools.
But by definition, those non-local families are not Catholic, otherwise they would be able to access their own local Catholic schools. Therefore, an Educate Together policy that favours them in another area, would inevitably discriminate against local Catholics families in that other area.
What Educate Together does not seem to appreciate is that religious discrimination can be direct or indirect. Indirect discrimination happens where there is less favourable treatment by impact or effect. It occurs where people are, for example, refused a service not explicitly on account of a discriminatory reason, but because of a provision, practice or requirement which they find hard to satisfy.
Clearly if Educate Together was to get their way, they would be directly favouring some families, and therefore indirectly discriminating against other families. They could argue that their aim is legitimate and the means proportionate, and indeed they seek to do this by describing the context in which they have formulated their policy. We understand their frustration with the current system, which we and they both oppose.
But why would Educate Together want to justify a policy that, within the system that exists, would inevitably result in more religious discrimination? Not only that, a policy that would reinforce the idea that religious discrimination can be countered by more religious discrimination, and would thus further institutionalise and perpetuate segregation and inequality? Have they not noticed how some supporters of Catholic ethos schools have welcomed their new policy?
Four allegedly false statements
Educate Together also suggests that Atheist Ireland has made four false statements about them. Here are the statements, and we will let readers judge for themselves.
Atheist Ireland Statement One
“The formal position of Educate Together therefore, is now that their secondary school admissions policies should favour children of their own ethos.”
Educate Together Response:
“This statement is false. It is not formal Educate Together policy to seek first choice for Educate Together national school students in enrolment to Educate Together second-level schools. The term ‘children of their ethos’ presupposes that children are indoctrinated into a particular ‘ethos’ in Educate Together schools. This could not be further from the truth in an Educate Together school.”
At its 2015 AGM, Educate Together passed a motion seeking “to replace the concept of geographical catchment areas in Educate Together secondary schools with criteria that give priority to Educate Together primary feeder schools”, in order “to ensure that children from Educate Together primary schools have access to second level schools under the patronage of educate Together and in line with parental choice.”
On foot of this motion, ten Educate Together principals wrote together to the Minister for Education and Skills stating that:
“We seek an admission policy that gives priority to those students for whom the school was established, namely those who have chosen the Educate Together ethos”.
On any fair reading of the above facts, it is reasonable to say that the formal position of Educate Together therefore, is now that their secondary school admissions policies should favour children of their own ethos.
We are not sure why Educate Together seems to be denying that it has an ethos.
- The Educate Together core principles say that Educate Together schools have a distinct ethos.
- The Educate Together website says that the ethos affects everything in the daily life of the school.
- Educate Together holds annual Ethos Conferences.
- Educate Together has employed an Ethos Development Officer.
- Paul Rowe has given a keynote address to one of the Educate Together Ethos Conferences on the Origin, Development and Potential of the Educate Together Ethos.
Clearly Educate Together schools have an ethos. That their ethos is more inclusive than the ethos of Catholic schools does not mean that it is not an ethos. Atheist Ireland never suggested that the Educate Together ethos must be enforced by indoctrination. Somebody in Educate Together has simply invented and then refuted that presupposition.
If Educate Together has a problem with the word ‘ethos’ being used, then their problem is with all of the practices that they themselves engage in to promote the idea that they have an ethos, and with the ten Educate Together principals who used the word in their letter to the Minister, as their description of the policy passed at the AGM, and who actually run Educate Together schools on the ground, and not with Atheist Ireland for reporting on this correspondence.
Atheist Ireland Statement Two
“This new policy from their 2015 AGM was acted upon by Educate Together when they wrote to Jan O’Sullivan, the Minister for Education and Skills, stating: “We seek an admission policy that gives priority to those students for whom the school was established, namely those who have chosen the Educate Together ethos”.
Educate Together Response:
“This statement is false. Educate Together did not write to Minister O’Sullivan on this matter. As the cited Irish Times article clearly states, ten Educate Together School Principals wrote to the Minister. Educate Together sympathises with and acknowledges the frustrations of these Principals. Such frustrations are a legitimate expression of opinion, but they do not represent the policy of Educate Together.”
This is the pertinent quote from the relevant Irish Times article.
“In the letter to the Minister, dated April 28th, 2015, the principals welcome the establishment of an Educate Together second-level school in the south Dublin area. However, they add: “We seek an admission policy that gives priority to those students for whom the school was established, namely those who have chosen the Educate Together ethos.”
Under Section 15 of the Education Act, the principals of Educate Together schools cannot simply invent their own policies and unilaterally seek to have them implemented. Under Section 15(1), “it shall be the duty of a board to manage the school on behalf of the patron,” and under Section 15(2):
“in carrying out its functions the board shall… (b) uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit of the school as determined by the cultural, educational, moral, religious, social, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions which inform and are characteristic of the objectives and conduct of the school… (c) consult with and keep the patron informed of decisions and proposals of the board…”
We are happy to correct the trivial distinction that the letter to the Minister was written by ten Educate Together principals as opposed to Educate Together centrally. But this distinction does not change the substance of the letter. The principals were articulating the policy of Educate Together, as passed at the 2015 AGM, in accordance with their legal duty to uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit of the school.
Atheist Ireland Statement Three
“In an email to the Department during February of 2015, the Schools Program Manager within Educate Together stated that: “I understand the [Department of Education and Skills] position that there should be places in the children’s local areas, but very often these families are pushed continuously to the bottom of enrolment lists because their children are not Catholic.” That is, Educate Together also sought an admissions policy for primary schools, which prioritised children based on their religious ethos rather than just catchment area.”
Educate Together Response:
“This statement is false. The author here wrongly attributes a quote to Educate Together’s New Schools Programme Manager, yet the Irish Times article cited clearly attributes it to a school Principal. At no point in the cited article does Educate Together’s New Schools Programme Manager, or the Educate Together school Principal, seek an admissions policy that prioritises children based on religious ethos. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the issue under discussion in the cited article.”
This is the pertinent quote from the relevant Irish Times article.
“In an email dated February 27th, 2015, to Amy Mulvihill, new schools programme manager with ET, and copied to the forward planning section of the department, Collette Dunne, principal of Firhouse ET National School, says: “Anne [Flynn] from forward planning has just phoned to say I can offer places to children on the waiting list whose addresses are within the catchment area but not to those outside the said area.
“I understand the [Department of Education and Skills] position that there should be places in the children’s local areas, but very often these families are pushed continuously to the bottom of enrolment lists because their children are not Catholic.”
In practical terms, to say that you want to prioritise families who are in a situation “because their children are not Catholic” has the same effect as saying that you want to prioritise them based on religious ethos. We are happy to correct the trivial distinction that this quote should have been attributed to an Educate Together principal rather than to an Educate Together Program Manager (Amy Mulvihill). But again, this distinction does not change the substance of the exchange.
The principal was acting in accordance with her legal duty to uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit of the school. And when the principal outlined her concerns, the Program Manager did not object to the position of the principal. Rather, she responded to the Department of Education stating that:
“ET has serious concerns about a directive issued to Firhouse ETNS regarding enrolment.”
The Program Manager then followed up on this discussion, during several subsequent communications with the Department of Education, in a manner consistent with her agreeing the principal on the issue. Which makes sense, as the position is consistent with the secondary school policy passed at the 2015 AGM.
Atheist Ireland Statement Four
“For secular parents in Ireland, Educate Together schools represent by far the best available option for their children.”
Educate Together Response:
“Educate Together schools are not just schools for ‘secular parents in Ireland’. In most Educate Together schools, about half of children come from families that identify themselves as Catholic. This issue here is not one of religion versus secularism. Many Catholic parents choose Educate Together’s truly inclusive equality-based model of education. Families of all faiths and philosophical backgrounds choose Educate Together schools because they feel this model of education best prepares their children for today’s diverse, globalised world. The author of this piece is welcome to meet with Catholic parents in Educate Together schools, to hear about their positive experiences with Educate Together’s equality-based model of education.”
It is difficult to know how to respond to this. The Atheist Ireland statement is clearly intended as a compliment to Educate Together. It is clearly true. We are bemused that Educate Together would allege that we made a false statement in asserting this.
Atheist Ireland never suggested that Educate Together schools are ‘just schools for secular parents in Ireland’. This is another assertion that has been simply invented and then refuted by Educate Together.
We know that Educate Together schools are not secular schools. We know that they have always been multi-denominational schools, despite the new confusing policy position of ceasing to describe themselves as multi-denominational, while not changing any of their practices from when they did describe themselves as multi-denominational.
The supposed factual errors referred to by Educate Together can be seen as either non-existent or spurious. The original Atheist Ireland article will be updated to reflect the peripheral points made by the recent Educate Together statement. However, this in no way changes how the Educate Together policy position is described by Atheist Ireland.
The recent Educate Together statement includes many straw man arguments, defending the organisation against imagined allegations that have not been made by Atheist Ireland or anyone else. Notwithstanding the tone of that statement, the original Atheist Ireland description of the Educate Together policy position stands, as do the benefits described in relation to changing that policy position.
The policy clearly states that Educate Together second-level schools wish to “give priority to Educate Together primary feeder schools”. There is no way to give priority to one group of people without indirectly discriminating against another group of people. In this case, the group of people indirectly discriminated against would be those from non-Educate Together schools, such as those from Christian denominational schools. This is a clear example of indirect religious discrimination.
In this article we have addressed directly the claims that Educate Together has made about Atheist Ireland. We would appreciate if Educate Together would now reciprocate, by addressing directly the motion passed at their 2015 AGM, and engaging directly with the arguments made in favour of changing this policy.