There is little point continuing a project when it has proved its point. I am closing Opting Out after two and a half years. The site was set up with the intention of giving denominational primary schools the opportunity to publicly display how they accommodate pupils who do not belong to their religous affiliation. After 18 months, the site widened its net to allow the general public to add how their local primary school was accomodating pupils from minority or non-faith backgrounds. The process took less than 90 seconds to do and set out to save schools time, help parents decide whether their local school could accommodate their needs, and generally be a helpful addition to understanding what Opting Out in the primary education sector really means.
However, always in my mind, was the suspision that despite the various churches’ and their schools’ insistence that they are inclusive, the reality is that they are not. Over the course of the two and a half years, only 37 primary schools out of over 3,200 chose to take a moment of their time to fill in a form to showcase the accommodations they made for their own pupils. There were no schools in the country unfamiliar with this website, thanks to the continuing support from the Irish Primary Principals’ Network who ensured that all of their members received several reminders of how to sign up their school.
Having said that, I have always defended schools for being unable to accommodate children from minority backgrounds. While this site gave them the ability to publicise this and they chose not to do so, the fact remains that they are in the middle of a tug-of-war that they cannot possible win. On one side of the rope is the Department of Education who are trying, (not very hard, in my opinion), to ask schools to be more inclusive and schools are trying to do this privately. On the other side of the rope is the Patron Body who are trying to ensure schools uphold their ethos, even if it goes against the concept of inclusion. Perhaps it is no wonder that some school leaders were fearful of adding themselves to this website. Indeed, a member of staff that is believed to be undermining a school’s ethos can be disciplined or even fired.
It is notable that after writing to several agencies involved in education that only one of the religious patron bodies replied to me. However, it is also notable that the National Parents’ Council refused to help in this project, citing that there was no demand from parents, which leads me to my next point.
The internet is full of opinions, including from many parents. A year ago, this website allowed any member of the public to showcase how their school accomodated their own children in terms of Opting Out. Despite dozens of reminders and targeted advertising, and the miles of threads giving out about how schools don’t accommodate their needs, less than 60 families took one minute of their to sign up.
Ultimately, I was unable to rouse people into a simple action that could have been a win-win situation for everyone. For all the perceived claims of inclusivity or perceived outrage about how schools don’t accommodate children, this website was unsuccessful at channeling it.
I strongly believe the reality is that there is no appetite from schools or their patron bodies to properly accommodate pupils, nor is there any appetite from the general Irish society to campaign for it.
The Admission Bill (2018) advised schools that they must outline exactly the arrangements regarding students not attending religious instruction. Without exception every single Catholic schools responded in the following way:
The following are the school’s arrangements for students, where the parent(s)/guardian(s) have requested that the student attend the school without attending religious instruction (etc.) in the school. These arrangements will not result in a reduction in the school day of such students:
- A written request should be made to the Principal of the school. A meeting will then be arranged with the parent(s)/guardian(s) of the student, to discuss how the request may be accommodated by the school.
I have not found a single instance where a school has outlined any specific accommodations for children not attending religious instruction. I have not found a single comment, article or reaction from a school principal, who has now this additional burden on his/her workload. I have not seen a single newspaper article or heard a single radio interview on the topic.
Furthermore, almost every single Catholic school was asked by their patron body to add the following line to their Admissions’ Bill:
XXX NS is a school whose objective is to provide education in an environment which promotes certain religious values and does not discriminate where it refuses to admit as a student a person who is not of the Catholic faith and it is proved that the refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school.
This statement, which not only seems to be against the Admissions’ Bill, basically states to families to keep a low profile. It is unwelcoming and flies in the face of inclusion.
While a number of principals have questioned the need for this sentence in their Admissions’ Policy, the vast majority effectively shrugged their shoulders and there wasn’t a word in the media about it.
However, a few months later, it came to light that the main Catholic Archdiocese has advised schools that they are not going to allow schools to prioritise siblings of children in the school for enrollment. I have watched the outrage unfold on the media and in education discussion groups. Schools are up in arms and politicians are calling for national debate on the subject. To me, the difference in the reactions says everything we need to know about how much Irish society cares about its minorities.
Having said that, I do believe that some people do care, which is why I hope someone else or another group may take Opting Out on and make a better job of it that I was able to do. If you are interested, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org.