My name is Simon Lewis. I am the principal of Carlow Educate Together. I am also a parent of a child that will be attending my 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.”
I am from a minority faith and 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 a website, https://optingout.ie, 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 does “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 will all be 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. I’d like to think that the 32 schools (1%) that saw the benefit of taking part. From September 2019, anyone can register a school. To ensure information is as accurate as possible, schools that register will be marked with a blue tick, to show they are verified. If anyone sees inaccurate information, this can be changed. Schools can also take over a profile which has initially been registered by a member of the public.
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. One can be sure that unless we have the evidence, the rules will continue to change, with no consideration for schools, and principals will be left to work it all out.