Religion in Denominational Schools

Despite almost every parent/guardian sending their little four-year-old into the care of the education system, I am always surprised by how little they know about the religious aspect of their child’s education. This page aims to explain how education and religion intertwine throughout the day,  how it affects children from different backgrounds, and why you should care.

The Irish Primary School Curriculum states that ‘religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.’

In most denominational schools, the religious spirit must permeate not just in religion class but throughout the school day. Teachers and staff are obliged to uphold the religious ethos of the school they work in throughout the day, whatever their own personal beliefs. There are no processes for children to avoid being offered a particular religious view of the world no matter what their beliefs.

Religious education or faith formation classes teach the religious values of the school as truth. For example, in a Christian denomination school (about 96% of schools), children learn prayers and songs and worship Jesus Christ. They learn stories from the New Testament as truth. They must visit the church for worship. Particularly in Catholic schools, much of faith formation in 2nd and 6th class surrounds preparation for Communion and Confirmation respectively.

Many schools argue that their reality on the ground is different. However, the actual reality is that if they are not teaching the full religion curriculum and they are not providing their school’s religious view of the world as truth, they are doing so in opposition to what is expected of them. If caught, they run the risk of being disciplined under Section 37 of the Employment Education Act.

With over 95% of Irish primary teachers identifying as (white) Irish Christians, many are products themselves of the Irish denominational education system. The excellent thesis: “‘It’s No Big Deal’: The perspectives and practices of primary school principals catering for children opted-out of religious instruction in Irish Catholic primary schools” by Shane Donoghue, gives the views of nine primary school principals who work in schools where a significant number of children are opted out of faith formation. Despite the fact that children are excluded from the class (by opting out) during religious education, almost all respondents claimed they were very inclusive.

While it could be argued that the majority of people are apathetic towards faith formation taking place in schools, and many parents are keen to outsource it entirely to schools, there are a growing number of families, for a variety of reasons, that do not wish for their children to be indoctrinated in a religion in which they do not subscribe.

When asked, the majority of Irish people’s preference is for multi-denominational schools (61%.) Moreover, the majority of parents that send their children to denominational schools do not think the ethos was important (only 44% – from the Catholic church’s own Genesis report.) In Ireland, according to the latest census figures, fewer than 75% of people identify as Christian.

With this information along with many other studies, many might wonder why 96% of schools remain under religious patronage and why it is tolerated even by those that are not religious. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of people don’t care.

Many people simply “go along to get along” (Kieran Cuddihy, Hard Shoulder) with the status quo. An excellent example is self-proclaimed atheist, Sean Moncrieff, who  wrote that he is raising his daughter in the long tradition of Irish Catholic hypocrisy. Others will recognise the problems of exclusion but promptly defend them staunchly defend it.

As noted by Sean Moncrieff in his article discussing his decision to baptise his daughters, despite identifying as an atheist, it appears that many view religion as an integral part of Irish heritage. This perspective is evident in the prevalence of Communion-themed merchandise on social media during May, ranging from banners and cupcakes to balloons. The trend extends to various businesses, with painting companies promoting special offers to prepare homes for Communion, and shops providing Communion dress fittings akin to bridal shows. Even weight-loss companies tailor programs for the occasion.

This phenomenon can be largely attributed to tradition, highlighting the Catholic Church’s influence in shaping perceptions in Ireland, where sacraments are often seen more as a cultural practice than a religious one. Interestingly, this occurs despite the fact that, according to the Genesis report, few people select schools based on their religious ethos, yet a significant proportion consider sacraments to be important.

Unlike in the song “Love and Marriage,” it seems when it comes to Catholicism and Sacraments, you can have one without the other!

You may be among those who say, “I’m not religious, but my child is participating in the sacraments.” This perspective often leads to a focus on organising celebratory aspects like booking a bouncy castle or a venue, while appreciating that the local school manages the religious preparations.

It’s common now to know of children in your child’s class who do not participate in sacramental activities. For those of different faiths, this might not seem impactful, as it could be viewed primarily as a cultural practice. However, it’s important to consider the perspective of those who choose not to participate due to secular or atheistic beliefs. The notion that non-participation in religious activities doesn’t significantly affect the child might be a common assumption, but it’s worth examining more closely.

Consider the experience of these children during the sacramental preparations: they often spend a considerable amount of time seated separately, sometimes at the back of the class or reading a book in the church’s rear. Even when involved in activities like singing in the choir or receiving a blessing, their role is more akin to that of a guest rather than a full participant in their class’s collective experiences.

Furthermore, the impact extends beyond the classroom. For instance, in many Catholic schools, the ‘Communion photo’ serves as a significant record of a child’s time at school. Children not participating in the sacraments often find themselves excluded from this photo, symbolically omitting them from a key piece of school history.

The role of the teacher in these scenarios is also worth considering. Not all teachers in religious schools may share the faith they are required to teach, due to the expectations of upholding the school’s ethos. This situation can be challenging, as teachers might have to instruct students on beliefs that are not universally accepted or align with recent societal shifts, as evidenced by various referenda.

It’s essential to recognise that the decision to conform with traditional practices affects not only the children who opt out but also the teachers who might not share the religious beliefs they are required to impart. By not actively seeking alternative religious education options like Sunday school, there is an implicit endorsement of the continued influence of the church in educational settings, even in areas where societal views have evolved.

In understanding the broader implications of these practices, one might reflect on the impact these decisions have on inclusivity and diversity within our educational system. As society continues to evolve, it’s important to remain cognisant of the diverse needs and beliefs of all members of the community, including future generations who may choose paths divergent from traditional practices.

It is necessary, therefore, that religious instruction in schools appear as a scholastic discipline with the same systematic demands and the same rigour as other disciplines. It must present the Christian message and the Christian event with the same seriousness and the same depth with which other disciplines present their knowledge. It should not be an accessory alongside of these disciplines, but rather it should engage in a necessary interdisciplinary dialogue. (Catholic Primary RE Syllabus 2015)

We’re very inclusive, we take anyone…it’s sometimes the outside noise that gets in the way (Principal of Catholic School)