New school model still tramples on rights of the non-religious

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RITE AND REASON: OUR STATE is unique among developed democracies in compelling children to attend school and then not providing them with a religiously neutral educational choice, writes DICK SPICER .

Schools, although they are funded by the taxpayers, are not “national” in the sense of accommodating all our children equally.

The sub-contracting of education to religious-run schools, whose ethos is guaranteed by law, has resulted in the integration of religion throughout the school day.

This means that large numbers are unable to exercise their constitutional right not to receive religious instruction, a contradiction recognised by the constitutional review body.

Why is it so difficult to get well-meaning people, including teachers, to see the injustice of this?

How can it be that we as a nation are so blind to discrimination in our education system and yet, apparently, so alert when it comes to human rights violations in other areas?

In Ireland today the primary school curriculum is imbued with a religious perspective which is impossible for a child to escape.

Meanwhile, the secondary school religious education curriculum, designed and enforced by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, as well as the examinations board, allows schools leeway to focus mainly on study of their own faith, with little incentive for in-depth study of other religions and ethical outlooks.

Thus, throughout the educational cycle, our students rarely receive religious education and/or a grounding in ethics, in the civic secular sense.

What they receive is instruction in religion and its sanctioned codes of behaviour, with moral issues examined through the prism of such indoctrination.

It is hard then at the end of that process to come to terms with the fact that other citizens may feel violated and discriminated against by the system as they experience it.

To those who have not been through such a process, the injustice of the situation is obvious.

The UN has informed the Irish Government of its “concern that the vast majority of Ireland’s primary schools have adopted a religious-integrated curriculum, thus depriving many parents and children who wish to have access to secular primary education”.

In response to domestic and international pressures, our Government has sought to develop a new “inclusive” model of primary school, under VEC direction. This has led to the setting up of Scoil Ghráinne and Scoil Choilm in west Dublin.

However, those running and teaching in these schools are themselves products of a distorted educational system and its teacher training programmes.

They are, therefore, poorly equipped to distinguish the crucial difference between religious education and religious instruction.

Unsurprisingly then, the programme they are evolving for children contradicts rights under our Constitution and UN conventions.

Two brief extracts from lessons they present at Scoil Ghráinne and Scoil Choilm will make the point.

(1) I have a Name:

“The class are instructed by teacher to recite the following prayer: God knows all our names. God loves us and keeps us safe. God blesses us today and every day.”

The teacher is also advised to hold a roll call whereby as each child’s name is called “the class will say ‘God bless . . .’ and told ‘they are valued by being known by a god who knows each one of us by name’.”

(2) Autumn:

“Come to understand it as a reflection of God the Creator. Thank God for autumn.”

These examples illustrate the imposition of belief in a supreme being or a god. The non-religious are not the only group affected, others whose rights are being violated are religious people who are not monotheist in belief.

If this is what the Government hopes will answer humanist and UN criticism, they had better take a more active, direct supervisory role in the experiment involving these two schools.

If these schools are to be seen by the UN as a positive development, the education authorities in Ireland must move urgently to rectify the situation.

As things stand, the two schools are yet further examples of how the “sins [indoctrination] of the fathers are visited on the children” throughout our education system.

Dick Spicer is chairman of the Humanist Association of Ireland

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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