Removing Religious Instruction from Schools

It wasn’t meant to be this way. When the National School system was formed in 1831, the rules stated that while the bible could be read in class, no comment was allowed in class time. Any comment from Protestant or Roman Catholic doctrine was to be conducted out of formal class time, in Sunday classes, or at Mass each Sunday. The system itself inherited the principles of the Kildare Place Society, formed in 1811, which advocated secular education, with comment on the bible the job of the clergyman, not the school master. Henry Grattan wrote in 1811:

I should recommend that in those Parish Schools the Christian religion should be taught; but that no particular description of it should form a part of their education.

This principle of keeping schools free of all interference with the particular religious tenets of any of the people in attendance was the basis of every major report on primary education from the formal easing of the Penal Laws in 1785 to the formation of the National System in 1831. The new system was not, as Breda O’Brien commented on RTÉ radio recently, to create “the perfect English child”. In fact, the Roman Catholic church embraced the new National School system, as the demise of the Kildare Place Society was a political victory for the Church. I have studied schools in Wicklow in detail during this period, and the facts counter O’Brien’s contention. Existing schools at the time could apply to come into connection with the board. The first schools in Wicklow to do so included one which was held in the nave of a Roman Catholic church in Englishtown, West Wicklow and Fr James Doyle’s enormous school at Avoca. The first school in Wicklow to receive money for a school building was St Kevin’s School at Glendalough. This was not a system the Roman Catholic church disliked.

Rule 68 of the National School System (Department of Education)

Despite these early desires to have children educated in “one undivided body, under one and the same system and in the same establishments“, the churches slowly but persistently moved education towards a denominational system. Early requirements for having support from both communities for establishing a National School were quietly dropped. The Church of Ireland, then the Established Church of state, was sore to have lost the battle on who controlled schools, and continued with the Kildare Place Society, which became the Church Education Society, until money dried up in the 1860s. By this time many of these schools had joined the National System as well. By 1900, the Catholic Bishops reported that the system was “as denominational almost as we could desire”. If things were this good for the Church under British rule, by the time of independence, they got better again. The Church gained ownership and control of most of the teacher training colleges and primary schools. The supreme importance of religious instruction in primary education was enshrined in the infamous Rule 68, still in existence [See image, from PDF].

Time for Change

The legacy of church involvement in primary education manifests itself in many ways. The primacy of religious instruction, on paper at least, means that significant proportions of the school day are given over to religious instruction, and this is accentuated in years where children undertake Communion or Confirmation. This time is meant to be fixed, so that according to Rule 69, children opting for a secular education can be removed. No options are detailed for what happens with such children, and the practicalities of this rule are almost impossible to manage. While the teacher is contractually obliged to give religious instruction, many primary teachers I have spoken to say that there simply isn’t time in the packed school curriculum to afford religious instruction its full time. This was long before Minister Ruairi Quinn’s recent advice to spend more time on maths and literacy and less on religion.

Secondly, and related, is the fact that trainee teachers can spend up to one third of their training time on religious education. This is problematic, because the primary school teacher is already expected to be a polymath, jumping from maths to science to geography to history to languages. Recent work in Mary Immaculate College Limerick shows a very poor understanding of basic scientific principles among primary school teachers in a sample of primary school teachers interviewed. More time on science, maths, history and geography results in an increased confidence in these subjects, and therefore there is likely to be an increased confidence in their delivery.

Thirdly, the religious ethos of a school means that under Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, it is legal for school patrons (Churches) to discriminate against their employees if they act in a way contrary to the ethos of a school. In other words, teachers in a Catholic school can be discriminated against, legally, if they are divorced, separated, homosexual, had an abortion, or didn’t go to confession in the last six months.

How to change?

There was a lot of talk recently on the Church’s willingness to engage in discussions on divesting their school patronage, although to date, nothing concrete has happened. With or without church involvement, the system needs to change. As far back as 1991, the Irish National Teachers Organisation distinguished between religious education and religious instruction; the latter being specific to one church, the former being a broader discussion of religion in our society [PDF]. A similar proposal in 2010 from Prof Michael Cronin argued for incorporation of philosophy into the primary syllabus (Irish Times, Feb 24, 2010), a call echoed by Elaine Byrne later that year. These calls illustrate that it is possible to value the importance of morality in education, without requiring these morals to be focussed through a particular religious lens.

O’Brien often points to Northern Ireland as an exemplar; one that includes religious education and performs well in international tests. By her confusing logic, one leads to the other. According to data available on The Guardian‘s website, almost half of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren are taught in schools where 95% of children are of one religion. In Belfast alone, 180 schools had no Protestant pupils on the books, and 111 schools had no Catholic children. This is institutionalised segregation, and the consequences of this are clear from our recent history. The Northern Irish education system is not a model to emulate. Their performance in international scores is down to investment, not religious education.

Acknowledging the impracticality of religious instruction as it currently exists in our schools under Rules 68 and 69, the Irish Human Rights Commission reported to the The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector in 2012 that at the very least:

where diverse provision of education does not exist in a school’s catchment area, consideration should be given to more formal religion classes at the start or end of the school day. [Report on INTO website]

Taking that first step would at least bring us back to 1831, where we could have a go at building our National School system again, with the state, and not the churches, finally taking responsibility for educating our children.


For more information on Wicklow Schools in the 18th and early 19th centuries, see details of my forthcoming book here.

2 thoughts on “Removing Religious Instruction from Schools

  1. Ah Micheal I came on to your blog to find out some stuff about flipped classrooms and ended up reading this instead. Excellent stuff but no good for those easily distracted. Fran is now telling me you have a great post on teaching Irish that I should read. (I hope it says that teaching Irish is a load of #:&%)

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