By Sarah Mac Donald - 10 December, 2015
It is not the role of the Minister [for Education] to determine or interfere with the ethos of faith schools, the bishops’ Council for Education warned in a statement on Wednesday.
The Council was responding to Minister Jan O’Sullivan’s announcement that she intends to abolish Rule 68 in January.
The rule describes religious instruction as a fundamental part of schooling and states that “a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school”.
In their statement, the bishops said that faith schools exist because many parents wish to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions.
“If the ethos of faith schools is undermined then the rights of such parents are compromised,” the Council for Education, which is chaired by Bishop Brendan Kelly, warned.
The bishops said they supported the need to update and revise the 165 rules contained in Rules for National Schools. However, Rules 68 and 69 which deal with religious education, should not be dealt with in isolation, they said.
“The ethos of faith schools is given expression in multiple ways. These include their programme in religious education and their admissions policies. It is not the role of the Minister to determine or interfere with the ethos of faith schools,” the bishops warned.
They highlighted that legal advice available to the Department of Education & Skills confirms this.
“In our view the autonomy of schools, with regard to religious education and admissions policies, should be enhanced rather than weakened.”
The bishops said that in their role as patrons of Catholic schools they would welcome dialogue with the Department of Education & Skills on this matter.
On Wednesday, Fr Tom Deenihan, General Secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA), said in a statement that while he was surprised by the Minister’s announcement regarding Rules 68 and 69, he could understand the rationale behind such a decision in some circumstances.
“Ireland is served by a plurality of primary school patronage models and it makes no sense for the State to compel schools of no religious patronage, ethos or denomination, to teach religious education,” he said.
“However, there are schools with religious patrons be they Catholic or other Christian denomination, or of another faith. These schools are sought by a significant number of parents for their children, and religious education is an important part of the schools’ ethos or characteristic spirit. These schools wish to continue to teach religious education in accordance with their ethos.”
Fr Deenihan said that the CPSMA is concerned that there is an intention to remove denominational ethos from the education system and he said this would create a school system that is generic in terms of curriculum and where patronage makes no difference.
“In that context I ask the Minister to give an undertaking that denominational schools, of whatever persuasion, be allowed by the Department to teach religious education during the school day in accordance with the school’s ethos.”
The Catholic Primary School Management Association represents all the boards of management of the over 2,900 Catholic primary schools in the Republic of Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Iona Institute has described the Education Minister’s announcement as “another attack on the rights of faith-based schools”.
Commenting on the decision, David Quinn said, “This is yet another attack on the rights of faith-schools by this Government and especially by the Labour party.”
“A faith school has a right to have a faith-based ethos. Parents have a right to send their children to a school with a faith ethos that can permeate the school day”.
He continued, “It is clear that the Irish education system must change and that there must be more school choice. This means much faster divestment of denominational schools to other patron bodies. Both the Churches and local politicians must take a stronger lead in this regard.”
But he said the remaining denominational schools must be allowed to have a strong, faith-based ethos otherwise the rights of parents who want to send their children to such schools are undermined to satisfy the demands of other parents who have a different educational vision.
“Fortunately, the Education Act still protects school ethos. Presumably, Labour will want to amend that Act in order to destroy this protection. That is the logic of their position. Eventually the various Churches may have to take a constitutional case to protect their rights.”