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Recommendations made by the Advisory Group to the Goverment's Forum on Patronage and Pluralism represent “a serious threat to the right to denominational education in primary schools in Ireland,” two leading Catholic academics have said.
Writing in yesterday's Irish Examiner, Prof Eamonn Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, who lecture in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick said that the report, if implemented, would “severely hinder a faith-based school from fulfilling its legal responsibility and right to uphold and foster a denominational school ethos”.
The report, published on Tuesday, made a number of proposals which critics have said undermine the ethos of denominational schools.
In their article, the authors welcomed the forum’s recommendation that the Catholic Church divest itself of some schools, arguing that such a move would facilitate greater parental choice.
However they said that the report's recommendations for schools which remained denominational, would “effectively eradicate the rights of parents who want their children to have a faith-based education”.
They criticised the report's recommendation to delete Rule 68 which recognises religious instruction as a fundamental part of the school course and permits a religious spirit to "inform and vivify the whole work of the school"
They said: “The forum is effectively requesting, even for faith-based schools, that no such spirit should characterise a denominational school. It specifically requests that religion be singled out to be taught as a discrete subject apart from the rest of the curriculum although all other subjects are to be taught in an integrated manner.”
They also criticised the report's proposal to replace specifically denominational prayers with non-denominational prayers.
They said: “This recommendation would prohibit specific Christian prayer in a Christian school if there was even one atheist or, say, Muslim, enrolled.”
They also criticised that report's recommendation that schools be obliged to display the emblems of various religions and celebrate the feasts of different religions “without any allowance for a religious patron’s responsibility to uphold and foster its own specific ethos”.
Such proposals, which purport to promote inclusion, often lead “to bland indifference rather than an informed cherishing of real difference,” Prof Conway and Dr Van Nieuwenhove said.
They noted that the report points out that "inter-faith and inter-cultural initiatives work best in schools where the Catholic students and parents are most committed to their own practice".
But they pointed out that the thrust of the forum’s recommendations was “to inhibit a Catholic school’s ability to contribute to faith practice”.
They said: “Oddly, there is scant recognition of the extraordinary work already done by school patrons, principals, and teachers in faith-based schools to accommodate and include pupils of different religions and none, and this because it is, in fact, the 'Catholic' thing to do.”
They also rejected the suggestion that the report's proposed “education in religions and beliefs" courses could be taught from a "value free" or "neutral" perspective.
Such a presuppostion, they said “is itself a fundamental tenet of one particular belief system: the secularist world view.”
They said: “In fact, the whole report implicitly professes the core belief of secularism: Religion has no place in the public sphere and therefore in a modern state’s educational system.
“Religious people of whatever perspective know and agree that one cannot approach questions of ultimate meaning from a position of indifference. Most educators accept that teachers teach not just what they know but who they are.
“The fact that some teachers with no religious beliefs rightly object to teaching religious education in school testifies to the fact that religion and ethics cannot be taught as though they were merely culturally interesting and personal views were immaterial.”
The report, they said “reveals its own truncated understanding of religious faith and how it permeates every aspect of personal identity.”
They also said that the report had been based “on outdated data regarding religious beliefs and practice in Ireland”.
They pointed out that the most reliable was the 2011 census which showed “that 84pc describe themselves as Catholic, an increase of five percentage points since the previous census”.
They said: “This statistic, taken together with the fact that non-Catholics often choose Catholic schools because of their evident quality, should give the minister for education pause for thought when considering the implementation of the forum’s recommendations.
“Any radical steps which would undermine denominational education might be seen as undemocratic in a country where such an overwhelming majority still describe themselves as religious.”