How parents stopped Castleknock Educate Together school using Catholic agency Accord to deliver sex education
Guest post by Graeme Carter, of the parents’ group No Accord in Educate Together
As of Friday 7th June, the Catholic charity agency Accord will no longer be delivering the Relationship and Sex Education curriculum in Castleknock Educate Together National School. The school’s announcement of this fact was a pleasant surprise for parents who had been objecting to the use of Accord for several years. The school’s RSE policy still specifically names Accord as the sole provider of RSE, something that will need to be addressed in collaboration and consultation with the parent body in the coming year – but for now, parents have won an important victory for equality, keeping biased RSE out of the classroom. In light of these events, and their widespread media coverage, many have asked why parents felt it was necessary to organise a petition and protest – and, indeed, given that there is a standard RSE curriculum, why the use of Accord was opposed at all.
2012 – Parents first raise the issue with the school
Some history is required for context on the decision to protest outside the school (after study hours) – a decision which was not taken lightly. Castleknock ET has been using Accord for many years, a decision which parents, either individually or via the PTA, have challenged throughout. In an RSE policy review in 2012, parent nominees specifically asked for other providers to be considered. The board of management of the school, and the principal (who also serves as secretary to the board), stated that there were no other options, and that many ET schools used Accord. This was taken at face value, although recent facts contradict that narrative.
Over the years following 2012, existing issues with communication with the board impacted attempts to hold a conversation on the topic. Board meeting dates and agendas were never published, and board minutes were never sent out. Contact between parents and the parent nominees to the board was virtually non-existent for much of this time. In short, getting in front of anyone to raise these concerns was exceedingly difficult.
Once any meeting did come to fruition, it was often fraught with tension, as suggestions and queries on ethos topics (including RSE) would arise and be rebuffed without open consideration. At one point, such was the displeasure of the board with attempts to communicate concerns, the PTA were no longer facilitated to hold meetings on school grounds, having to convene in a nearby pub instead. Although the school should operate in a democratic manner, those with concerns about the commitment of the board to the school’s ethos were forced to work in an extremely obstructive environment.
2018 – Events begin to gather pace
Events began to gather pace in 2018. A parent information talk, required by school policy to be held ahead of the children’s RSE course so parents could raise any queries or concerns directly with the provider, was cancelled by the school management. This decision was taken without any parental consultation. Consent forms for Accord to deliver RSE were sent to parents of 5th and 6th class students, and this was the first time that many parents began to take notice of who was delivering this content to their children.
Concerns were raised by emails, letters, and PTA agenda points, without response. One parent, frustrated with the lack of engagement or communication on these topics, contacted the media, which widened the discussion to include the patron body, Educate Together. Educate Together initially responded only that it was the school’s decision on who to engage for RSE provision.
In June 2018, 5th and 6th class parents attended a particular PTA meeting, there confirming that over the years, they had highlighted the use of Accord as being inappropriate in an Educate Together school, and the PTA undertook to seek urgent policy review the following school year, 2018-19. Nonetheless, in 2018, the RSE modules were delivered by Accord, with some parents choosing to keep their children at home that day, as the school refused to provide any supervision for children whose parents did not want them to attend the Accord class.
September 2018 – Whole School Evaluation Report
Given the deep, ongoing issues at Castleknock ET, a Whole School Evaluation was requested in 2018. Published that September, it confirmed what parents had been saying for years – communication and trust at the school were in crisis, and the board exhibited significant failings in that regard, in addition to failing to sustain staff morale (it should be noted that teaching standards were generally excellent, a credit to those working under difficult conditions). A letter was issued to the school community in September, and amongst other things, the board promised that they would deliver more effective communication and revisit the RSE policy.
Despite a clear undertaking that the RSE policy review would not be left to the last minute, parents had to wait until January 2019 to be asked to register their interest in participating in the review. Crucially, it was not communicated that there would be a vote at the end of the process, something which would have ensured wider parent participation and a more balanced vote. Five parents put their names forward, one of whom was a member of the PTA, and the RSE policy review process commenced.
Early 2019 – Parents not invited to RSE policy discussions
A series of strange events took place at Castleknock ET in early 2019. Volunteer parents were not invited to any of the initial sessions discussing the RSE policy; only staff and board members attended, and no minutes of these sessions were shared with parent volunteers. Months went by as the volunteers waited for information. Eventually, in March, parents were suddenly given 3 working days’ notice to attend a mid-afternoon policy review meeting, which was declared to be the final meeting on the topic. Unsurprisingly, several could not attend (insufficient notice of such events had been flagged in a parent survey as recently as December 2018).
One parent volunteer, known to be opposed to the use of Accord, was not even invited to participate at all; at time of writing, that parent is still awaiting an explanation on this from the school. Of the five parent volunteers, only two could attend. During the meeting itself, one volunteer who had taken the time to carry out extensive research into the topic of RSE provision in Ireland and elsewhere was told that there was ‘no time for their contributions’ on the topic. The previously unadvertised vote was announced, scheduled to be taken via email three days after the meeting; the parents who were unable to attend the final meeting were not invited to vote at all. One of these parents subsequently received an email informing them that the RSE policy decision had been taken at the meeting (contradicting the announced vote) and that their contributions would no longer be required.
March 2019 – The controversial vote takes place
In the brief interim between the meeting and the vote, the PTA chairman wrote to the board outlining concerns, and asked that the letter be shared with sub-committee members prior to the vote taking place. The letter was never acknowledged or responded to. The significance of this should not be understated: one of the roles of the PTA is to advise the principal and board on policy issues, and incidents that may require a review of school policy. Failing to respond to a crucial communication like this demonstrates the breakdown in communication under the current board.
On March 22nd, the vote took place. Both the principal and the school secretary appeared to be voting members of the sub-committee, but as votes were counted in secret and no parent representative was permitted to witness the counting of votes, it is unclear who ultimately participated. The policy was ratified on March 26th. Policy drafts and copies specifically naming Accord as RSE provider were never shown to parent representatives. Months of PTA enquiries and requests for updates followed, all of which went unanswered. Eventually, on 21st May, an email came out from the school, once again confirming Accord as RSE provider.
Parents organise petition and protest
This did not sit well with the many parents who had chosen to send their children to an Educate Together school on the understanding that no priority access would be given to any one worldview. Between this, and the now more widely known problems with board processes and communication, parents organised a petition against Accord and gathered over 170 signatures in a few days. Word spread among the community, and a protest was organised. 85 parents marched outside the school on a Tuesday evening in May, demanding a response from the board who had ignored all parental objections to date. With the system so clearly broken, and that fact apparent now to more people than ever before, protest was the only recourse.
Events accelerated. TDs were contacted. RTE, the Independent, Gay Community News, and others, all featured articles. There were radio interviews. A website, Facebook page, and Twitter account were set up. In response, Educate Together issued a stronger statement, saying it was “inappropriate for any religious organisation to deliver a curriculum in an Educate Together school”. A parent talk by Accord, scheduled for the same evening as the protest, was cancelled, as the school was now “assessing an alternate provider”, who had “just been identified” (three alternative providers were, in fact, identified in 2018 by the PTA).
School suddenly backs down with further protests planned
Finally, with only a few days to go until ACCORD were due in the school; with further protests planned; with some 5th and 6th class parents having booked their own RSE provider outside the school; and with many parents planning to keep their children at home (regardless of which class) on the day of Accord’s talk, Castleknock ET made the announcement that Accord would not be delivering the RSE module this year.
No acknowledgment of parent concerns was made – it was simply stated that an alternative provider had been arranged. For reasons unknown, and as yet unexplained, the board of management chose not to appoint the preferred provider of the parents and teachers who voted for secular provision on the RSE sub-committee.
Parents ask Educate Together to ask the Minister to dissolve the board
The PTA in Castleknock have written to the Governance and Programme Manager of Educate Together, Adrienne Flynn, requesting that the patron exercise their right to request that the Minister of Education dissolve the board of management in Castleknock ET due to their failure to fulfil their duties under the Education Act. Three weeks on, they are still awaiting a reply. During the Whole School Evaluation in 2018, the board described Castleknock ET as being “known in Dublin 15 for a long time as a poisoned chalice, with a toxic mixture of a small number of militant parents acting in concert with a cohort of staff to satisfy particular agendas”. Given the conduct of the board and its disregard for parental concerns, it would appear that parents have every right to be concerned about the management of the school.
Why is Accord a problem for Educate Together parents?
As for why Accord became the focal point this time – why anyone would take issue with their delivery of the RSE curriculum – there are two simple objections. The school’s own ethos, in its very first point, states that “we have a responsibility to accept others for who they are”. Accord’s charitable purpose, as described on their charity registration, includes advancing the “traditional catholic definition of family”. Advancing this definition must, by its nature, detract from any other definition. Accord fails to align to the equality-based ideal of accepting others.
Remember that Accord almost lost its funding in 2018 because it would not offer its counselling services to same-sex couples – they refused to accept these couples as being legitimate. Once the coffers were threatened, they opened their services to LGBT people, but that was a long fight against an unwilling organisation. Having an organisation that violates the ethos come in to the school should be obviously problematic, but perhaps for some people, it is not enough to replace them. Again, if the RSE curriculum is standard, why oppose Accord delivering it? In fact, the problem is with what Accord refuses to say, rather than what it says.
Imagine, for a moment that you are a child to same-sex parents; or you have LGBT people in your life who you care for; or you yourself, at around 11 or 12 years of age, are beginning to think you might be a part of that community. An important adult visitor is brought in to speak to you about this topic in your classroom, among your peers. They have only spoken about heterosexual families and relationships, so you ask your question. The response: “We do not discuss that here. Talk to your parents.” Imagine the confusion, the hurt, of suddenly realising that you, or your loved ones, are taboo.
This should never happen to any child, but in a school whose patron body’s core message is “No Child Is An Outsider”, it is beyond irresponsible to allow it. Emotive comments from same-sex parents of children in the school, given on the parent petition, told of the heartbreak this caused. Frustration and anger, certainly, but above all, hurt. A community that has fought for its right to exist and be recognised in a battle which is still ongoing, was dismayed to find that the reach of intolerance extended in to an Educate Together national school.
So, this – this is the harm of Accord delivering RSE. By refusing to acknowledge the existence of LGBT people in the classroom, they render them invisible. Visibility is key to defeating intolerance. Their silence hurts those who are part of the LGBT community, or care for people who are part of it. While Accord, much like the church they represent, are often unwilling to speak out directly against LGBT people and same-sex marriage (to do so would risk alienating the remaining flock the church possesses), Accord is happy to filibuster the discussion by occupying the space an objective provider could fill.
What happens in other schools?
For RSE, other schools use independent providers, sometimes local nurses, or people who specialise in the topic like Sarah Sproule of “thetalk.ie”. Most schools, in fact, use their own teachers, as there are usually some among the staff who are willing or eager to talk to the children about this and help ease their transition in to one of the most tumultuous times in their lives. Had the school availed of funding available to train teachers in RSE, which amounts to one teacher per year, there would now be seven individuals qualified to deliver the course internally, at no cost. For a school with staggering financial challenges, it is an odd decision not to follow this course.
Teachers from other schools commenting on the situation at Castleknock ET spoke of the “damage control” they had to do following visits to their schools from Accord. Besides LGBT topics, children heard little to nothing of contraception, or consent. Objective and thorough sex education is essential, and it needs to be ongoing throughout development. Above all, objective sex education should not be a concern to anyone, as nothing prevents a parent from delivering their child immediately after to hear any alternate perspective. It is the fear of other opinions that drives the church and its related charities to occupy classrooms; it is the knowledge that the more tolerance there is, the greater the gap between populace and church. It is nothing less than an attempt to sustain ignorance and delay equality by creating another generation that, faced with this same topic, will again ask “what’s the harm?”
Conclusion – We need an updated RSE curriculum
As a collective sigh of relief emerged in the WhatsApp groups and emails which parents were forced to use for lack of a proper forum, there was a thought that another possible end to the use of Accord might have arisen, had the efforts of parents failed. The RSE curriculum has not been updated in over 20 years. The efforts of Atheist Ireland, Teach Don’t Preach, and others, staunchly opposed and long blocked by the Catholic church, mean that a new curriculum will likely be approved in the near future.
It will be far from the sex-positive, inclusive, autonomy based course that it should be, but the more it progresses, the more biased RSE providers of all kinds will be squeezed out of the market. Accord’s own biases mean it will be unable to deliver a truly equality-based curriculum, and it is towards this that we must all push; not with the purpose of excluding Accord – that is their own choice and simply a side effect of their intolerance – but with the purpose of doing the best for all of our children, in all of our schools.