Advocacy & Media
Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

Pressure on Parents Unconscionable and Inappropriate

Paul Rowe, Educate Together CEO

Last week, it was great to hear the United Nations Human Rights Committee once again recommended that the Irish State increase the availability of non-denominational schools in Ireland. I’m not going to get into the discussion over the labels “non-denominational”, “secular” and “multi-denominational” here but suffice to say, the Educate Together model of schooling satisfies all the requirements envisaged by the UN. This week we again see in the press comment about the impact of the lack of such places and the pressure that this puts on parents. This is unconscionable and utterly inappropriate in a State that considers itself modern and democratic. 

This summer, like every summer since I started working for Educate Together, there are too many families who have to submit religious documents in order to gain access to the only schools available for their children. There is no other part of our publicly-funded State infrastructure in which a person has to do this. In all other parts of Irish society, it would be illegal for a provider to ask a person their religion before giving them access to services that are funded by the State. Could we imagine going into a police station and being asked to supply documentary evidence of our religion before being served at the public desk? I think not, and I cannot imagine such a situation being accepted by the public at large. The same would apply to all our public services. So why do we continue to think that this is acceptable in terms of access to education? 

The sobering thought is that this situation is not getting better. This year, there are more and more families placed in this situation. Despite the fact that Educate Together will be opening six more primary schools in a few weeks time, we are still racing to catch up with the change in public attitudes and in fact falling even further behind. 

As I write this, we have 25 areas in which the Department has acknowledged that there is need for an Educate Together primary school. These areas were decided on the basis of public surveys of parental preference in 44 areas. Educate Together's own evidence from requests to its offices and schools and from public census and survey data would double that figure. There are still major urban centres in Ireland with no Educate Together school and no official plans for one. Dundalk and Athlone are probably the most significant in terms of population and strategic position.

The article in this week's Evening Herald illustrates the corrosive impact this situation has on families.  We don't know how many, but we all know that thousands of families are now signing their children up for sacraments in the Catholic religion for no other reason than to secure access to schools. For those interested in the ethical or moral quality of our society this should be of major concern. And yet change is excruciatingly slow.

Society often suggests that such dishonest declaration has no effect on children. However, children are highly perceptive. They learn and understand their parents’ body language and tone years before they learn the meaning of big words like ‘confirmation’, ‘baptism’ and ‘conscience’. Children sense the discomfort of their parents when they come home from school reciting prayers that have previously had no part in the life of the family. They follow the hesitation, the slight movement of the face, the guarded look.

Why do we continue to accept such a situation? Why is it not acceptable for all political parties to agree that it is essential for the future of Irish society that there should be a national network of schools that deliver the same guarantees of equality of access and esteem as the Educate Together model? 

For the avoidance of doubt, they don't have to be run by Educate Together - any State or voluntary organisation could provide them as long as they are held accountable for maintaining the same standards of equality of access and esteem. Such a network should be available to all families at a distance equivalent to 30 minutes travel time in the morning. Educate Together estimates that nationally we need around 300 schools to achieve this. This September there will be 74. As a society, we have a very long way to go.

Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816