My name is Simon Lewis. I was raised in a non-Christian household but no longer practice the faith I was raised in. I am a principal of a multidenominational primary school and I am also a parent of a child that attends my school. Had I have had a choice, he would have attended his local primary school. This is not an option for us as the school is denominational. Because we are not a religious family, it would mean he would be opted out of faith formation.
Having worked in a number of denominational schools, including a Communion class, I am very aware of what school can be like for an opted out child. Personally, I couldn’t live with all that meant.
You probably wonder how someone from a non-Christian background ended up teaching a Communion class. The reason is quite simple. I worked in a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” system. I knew that if I didn’t pretend to be a Catholic, I risked being disciplined. Sure enough when I “came out” as not being Catholic during the Communion year, in June I was told I would no longer be teaching a mainstream class. Thankfully I argued my case to remain in a mainstream class, albeit not a sacrament one, but I knew my days were numbered. After one more year, I applied to any multidenominational school within driving distance and commuted for over an hour each way. In the meantime, I campaigned for a multidenominational school for three years. When it seemed like the campaign was going to be fruitless, my wife and I put in place a plan to sell our house and move closer to somewhere with an option for us and our family.
Thankfully it takes longer to buy and sell a house in Ireland than most people would like, and a few months later, the first and only multidenominational school was to open in the county we had made our home. Fifteen years later, it remains the only mutlidenominational school in the county. My wife has to travel a 35km round-trip to work in the next nearest multidenominational school.
The amended school’s admissions bill was published in the middle of 2018, which was met with much fanfare in the media. In effect, the bill essentially prohibits Catholic schools from prioritising admission for Catholic children. It does not affect minority faith schools, which can continue to use a child’s faith as a criteria for admission. Whatever people’s opinions on the rights or wrongs of it, one item of the bill that interested me greatly was an insertion into the Education Act, where, amongst other changes, an admissions policy will now have to “provide details of the school’s arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction.” This is more commonly known as “opting out.”
Over the last number of years, I speak to hundreds of parents about their experiences of being a minority or non-faith in denominational schools, many of whom opt out of faith formation. I decided to gather up all the questions that have been asked by these families and could be answered simply by any school. I created this website, which lets schools outline exactly what they do to accommodate children that opt out.
Given that this bill does not affect my school, the natural question is why have I done this?
From my own experience and reading the hundreds of stories from other parents, I know that opting out isn’t straightforward. There are dozens of ways this works in schools and it can vary from classroom to classroom. As a principal, I have spoken to some of my colleagues that find it increasingly difficult to accommodate parents’ needs and demands, especially when there is not necessarily consistency between teachers, never mind schools! Not only did “Opting Out” give schools the opportunity to comply with the legislation, it can help schools see what other practices are happening in other schools and give opportunities to update practices and learn from each other. It also gives families like mine, and thousands of others, clear black and white guidelines as to what to expect should they wish to attend a school. Given that schools aren’t going to be provided with any resources to accommodate pupils that wish to opt out, it would seem to me, to be a win-win situation.
I am also very interested in the role that faith formation plays in primary schools. There are so many stories out there both positive and negative, all anecdotal, and conclusions are being drawn, which may be coloured by perception rather than fact. I am interested what is actually going on, and by registering on the site, we are now able to see the different practices happening around the country. For example, we could find out things like: what percentage of schools allow opted out children not attend church services and what happens at this time? How many schools have a religious symbol on their crest? How many schools allow teachers not to teach Faith Formation?
The biggest question that I initially asked was how many of the 3,200 denominational primary schools would sign up to showcase the work they do.
Personally, I was disappointed that anecdotal evidence, rather than facts, resulted in the new Schools’ Admissions Bill and it hasn’t even touched on children that wish to opt out of faith formation once they enter the building. Now that we have the evidence, I believe there is no question that things will have to change. It is not fair that schools, and principals were left to work it all out. However, most importantly, it is unfair on the children who have spent years sitting at the backs of their classes.