Does Tipperary Education and Training Board have a Christian ethos?

In a recent case, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found in favour of Tipperary Education and Training Board (ETB), in a case taken by a computer science and maths teacher. The teacher had claimed that he was discriminated against on the ground of religion in the Central Technical Institute in Clonmel, which is an ETB school.

This case raises important questions about the ethos of the school in question, and whether that ethos was decided by the ETB as the Patron Body, or by the Board of Management or others within the school. The WRC stated that the Respondent (which is Tipperary ETB, and not the school board) has a Christian ethos, as well as the school having one.

The WRC Decision said a Christian ethos is outlined in the school’s Religious Education Policy, as adopted by the board of the school in 2014. And that RE Policy has a more Roman Catholic bias than the phrase ‘Christian ethos’ would suggest.

But more fundamentally, it is the role of the Patron body, not the School Board, to decide the ethos of a school, and it is the duty of the school Board of Management to uphold the Patron body’s ethos. So does Tipperary ETB have a Christian ethos?

These questions are topically important, because the Minister for Education is now presenting Community National Schools run by ETBs as his favoured alternative to denominational religious schools. But if ETBs or their schools can adopt a Christian ethos, with a Roman Catholic bias, then what real alternatives would atheist and secular parents have?

Atheist Ireland will be following up on these questions with Tipperary ETB, ETB Ireland, and the Department of Education.

Who was the case being taken against?

The WRC Decision described the Respondent as follows:

  • The Respondent is an Education and Training Board established under the Education and Training Boards Act 2013 and provides a range of education programmes including Second Level Education, Post Leaving Certificate Programmes, Further Education and Adult & Community Education.
  • The Complainant is employed by the Respondent and at the relevant time was a teacher of computer science and maths at a regional Central Technical Institute (CTI) which is a constituent college of the Respondent.

During the case, Tipperary ETB described the ethos of its Central Technical Institute as follows:

  • The CTI has a Christian ethos as outlined in the School’s Religious Education Policy.
  • In addition to the provision of religious education, CTI has, traditionally, taken various steps in preservation of its primarily, but not exclusively Christian ethos
  • The presence of religious symbols is wholly legitimate, rational and proportionate to the object of the preservation of a religious ethos within CTI, which has the express benefit of statutory protection.
  • The Respondent submits that the May altar has been a feature of the school life by reference to its ethos for decades.

The CTI Religious Education Policy that was produced at the WRC has a more specifically Roman Catholic bias than the phrase ‘Christian ethos’ would suggest. It includes the following:

  • Our community is part of the wider community primarily composed of Roman Catholics, and the majority of our students are Roman Catholic, and the ethos of the school reflects this.
  • Faith formation is governed by the majority religion, 90% of the pupils being Roman Catholic.

In its conclusions, the WRC stated several times that the Respondent (which, let us remember, is Tipperary ETB, and not the school) has a Christian ethos, as well as the school having one:

  • It is clear that the Respondent has an established Christian ethos and it adduced evidence that the placement of the May altar is a long standing tradition which it practices every year in keeping with this ethos.
  • This practice is in keeping with the Respondent’s Christian ethos.
  • I am satisfied that the CTI has a Christian ethos and the teaching of religious education is a fundamental component of the curriculum in the school.
  • The Christian ethos of the school is clearly outlined in the CTI’s Religious Education Policy.
  • In addition to the provision of religious education, CTI has traditionally, taken various steps in preservation of its primarily, but not exclusively, Christian ethos.
  • As I have already stated above, it is clear that the Respondent has a Christian ethos and I accept that the placement of the May altar was one of a number of long standing traditions practiced by the CTI in keeping with its religious ethos.

Who is responsible for deciding a school ethos?

The Education Act 1998 says that the duty of a school board is to manage the school on behalf of the patron, and that the board shall:

‘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”

Who decides what the ethos will be? The Department of Education has made it clear that is the owners or patrons/trustees of a school that decide the ethos, and not the school board, principal or teachers. More specifically, the Department has said:

“In all primary and post-primary schools, the school’s stated ethos (or characteristic spirit as it is termed in the legislation) is decided by the owners or patrons/trustees of the school and not by central government. Autonomy over ethos does not exist at the level of the school board, principal or teachers. Indeed, one of the specific duties of a board is to uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit of the school. Thus, depending on the unit of analysis, schools may be viewed as fully autonomous in respect of ethos, or partly autonomous if the unit of analysis is an individual school operating within a specific ethos.”

So, in the case of this school, it is the duty of Tipperary ETB, and not the school board, to decide the ethos.

What has Tipperary ETB said about its ethos policy?

The Tipperary ETB Mission Statement says nothing about religious ethos. It’s stated Mission is to deliver a quality education and training service to the people of Tipperary, and its aims are:

  • To develop our recognised role within the community as a provider of quality, locally based, accessible education and training opportunities for all age groups;
  • To continue to provide cohesive, flexible, and inclusive support services, through a consultative and professional approach;
  • In line with the overall provision and implementation of its policies and services, this ETB undertakes to facilitate, encourage and support the ongoing professional training and development of its entire staff team

The name Central Technical Institute is the umbrella name for three elements of the same school. Each of these three bodies has a separate page on the Tipperary ETB website.

Each of these pages says that the CTI seeks to bring students to an awareness of their identity in a multi-denominational, multi-cultural context. There is not even a hint of a Christian ethos, never mind an ethos that reflects that the majority of the students are Roman Catholic.

An article on Tipperary ETB website about Community National Schools, says:

Community National Schools (CNS) are state-operated, multi-denominational, inclusive schools that welcome all children from the local communities they serve. Historically, schools were managed by private patrons who also are responsible for the ethos of the school e.g. Church bodies, Educate Together. The State has now developed its own primary school model with the Community National Schools…

Ireland is changing. It used to be a significantly homogenous country with most people identifying as Roman Catholic… Due to these changes, the current school system which is 96% Church-run no longer fully reflects Irish society. Even with their best efforts, many Church-run schools are struggling to fully meet the needs of all of their children due to the constraints of their ethos…

Although Community National Schools do not prioritise any one religion over another, space is made within the school day for children to be nurtured in their own faith or secular belief while learning more about their friends’ beliefs too…

CNS schools are similar to Educate Together Schools in that they have inclusive enrolment policies which do not prioritise any one group over another, are multi-denominational and have equality central to their ethos…

Unique to each school type is what is known as their ‘Patron’s Programme’. This is done for 30 minutes a day and underpins the ethos of the school. In a Church-run school it is a single faith formation programme. However, in a Community National School, it is a multi-belief and values education programme called Goodness Me! Goodness You!…

Unlike single-denominational schools, Community National Schools have a multi-belief and values education programme that caters for children of all faiths and secular beliefs…

Community National Schools also offer Belief Specific Teaching (BST) where parents can request additional supports around specific rites of passage. For example, many Catholic parents want some support from the school around the sacraments. The schools work with the parents and parish around how they can support them, bearing in mind the limitations they have as they are primarily multi-denominational schools…

What does the CTI Religious Education Policy say about ethos?

The WRC found that the Respondent has a Christian ethos, outlined in the Religious Education Policy that was approved by the CTI’s Board of Management on 3 December 2014. This is signed by the Principal, the Religious Education Coordinator, and a Roman Catholic Diocesan Advisor.

Here are some extracts:

  • Ours is a co-ed school, its ethos being Christian and Irish.
  • Our community is part of the wider community primarily composed of Roman Catholics, and the majority of our students are Roman Catholic, and the ethos of the school reflects this.
  • Religious Education is a compulsory subject in CTI. regardless of religious belief, all students are obliged to follow the RE Programme.
  • The Board of Management approved the Policy and ensures its implementation.
  • Our Mission Statement and our school ethos guide staff in their work at the school. Thus the cross-curricular support for Religious Education is enshrined as a fundamental tenet of the school ethos.
  • Faith formation is governed by the majority religion, 90% of the pupils being Roman catholic. Students are offered faith formation in addition to Religious Education as a subject.
  • Goals of the RE policy include promoting through religious education the spiritual and overall development of the students.
  • Opt out from ER may only occur where a parent or guardian has made a formal request in writing to the Principal.
  • Retreats are provided for transition year students.

The policy also says the following about Faith Formation and the Liturgical year:

  • Faith Formation and the Liturgical year — In keeping with the ethos and traditions of the school, a number of liturgical events are marked in the school. These celebrations are inclusive of all faith traditions and students are encouraged to participate.
  • Mass for opening of the school year held in the Franciscan Church
  • Celebrations of the sacrament of Reconciliation (This is the new name for confession)
  • Advent and Lenten Liturgies
  • Blessing of Throats on St Blaise’s day
  • Application of Ashes on Ash Wednesday
  • Graduation Mass/service for Leaving Cert Students
  • Other prayer services as appropriate, e.g. bereavements etc
  • School Assembly every Monday morning with prayers, reflections.
  • Religious symbols that are visible in our school environment are drawn from Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu and Jewish traditions.
  • Symbols used will have a written explanation to educate staff and students of their meaning.
  • To celebrate Christmas, it is a tradition to display the crib. Likewise, it is part of our tradition to have a May altar during the Month of May.

Is the CTI Religious Education policy consistent with the ETB ethos?

The CTI is a constituent body of Tipperary ETB, and the Board of the CTI is a subcommittee of Tipperary ETB. Its minutes and policies must be approved by the ETB, and its school plan and ethos must be informed by the mission of the ETB and any policies or guidelines that of the ETB regarding the characteristic spirit of its schools.

This is what ETBI says about ethos:

The School Plan should be informed by the mission of the ETB and the Trustee Partner (where applicable) the ETB’s Statement of Strategy and any policies or guidelines that may be in place regarding the characteristic spirit of its schools.

The school planning process includes the development and regular updating of school policies. Some policies are required by law, some are required to comply with DES circulars, and others are necessary to provide coherence and direction to the work of the school. A recommended list of policies that should be included in the School Plan is set out at Appendix 2.

All policies need to be regularly reviewed and, if necessary, revised. Thus a board should develop and maintain a Policy Review Calendar. It might also be helpful to new board members in particular, if a short section of each board meeting was devoted to briefly familiarising members with one or two different school policies.

This is from the 2013 Handbook for VECs (which are now ETBs)

Part Two: Board of Management of a School — Management functions in (A) and (B), other than personnel matters, are assigned to a board as a sub-committee established by the VEC in accordance with the relevant legislation.

The minutes of Tipperary ETB are published on its website.

There are references to various school policies being ratified, but there seems to be no reference to the CTI Religious Education Policy that was produced at WRC being ratified, that is, the policy approved by the Board of Management on 3 December 2014.

The Minutes of the CTI board of that date were adopted by the ETB on 10 February 2015, but there is no reference to the RE Policy being ratified. There is reference elsewhere to another policy from the CTI being ratified, so the process is in place to do so.

Conclusion

This case raises important questions about the ethos of the ETB, the ethos of the school in question, how the ethos of each was decided, and who decided it.

These questions are topically important, because the Minister for Education is now presenting Community National Schools run by ETBs as his favoured alternative to denominational religious schools.

Atheist Ireland will be following up on these questions with Tipperary ETB, ETB Ireland, and the Department of Education.

Atheist Ireland

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