Advocacy & Media
Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

The Religious Void In Irish Education

Paul Rowe, CEO

I was a bit taken aback to read the statements attributed to Fr Paul Connell, president of the Joint Managerial Body and the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools, as reported in the Irish Times on Friday 29th April.

In the article, Fr. Connell is reported to have stated that “Dismantling the Catholic ethos of schools would leave children in a moral vacuum and in danger of despair,” and that “The alternative is a vacuum that can express itself in nihilism and the growing phenomenon in our schools of self harm.” Educate Together knows Fr. Connell and the leaders of the JMB quite well, the JMB has been very supportive of our move into secondary education. We are impressed with the quality of service offered to schools and the boards of our new voluntary secondary schools are joining the organisation.

However, the reported assertion is quite shocking to secular organisations like Educate Together and the teachers, pupils and parents who attend our schools. It is unfortunately not an uncommon view held by some leaders of faith-based or denominational schools.  In the past, it has even been articulated as a medical opinion by some psychiatrists associated with religious interest groups.

At its heart is the idea that only a religious perspective can engage with the hopes, feelings, and the spiritual and emotional life of a human being. It implies that a child or person without a religious perspective is somehow deficient or less complete as a human.  In its more extreme and dangerous form, it can be associated with a conviction that only the particular world view of a specific faith is effective in this arena. Despite its prevalence, it is important to note that many religious educators, and many in Ireland,  specifically reject such an assertion and endorse a more open and equal approach to the subject.

Educate Together has been contesting this view and theoretical space for many years.  From the very first beginnings of our movement in the late 1970s, there have been attempts to sideline our approach in similar terms. Campaigns were launched against the opening of our schools, articles of condemnation written and even quite outlandish comments made in parliamentary committees.

Educate Together rejects the fundamental premise that one specific religious or philosophical outlook is necessary for a moral or ethical purpose or for human well-being.  The experience of our schools has repeatedly proven the contrary.  The Educate Together movement has shown that once a school asserts a strong value system of equality and human rights and builds a school culture (or “ethos”) around this, it is perfectly able to engage with the full educational and social needs of pupils and to provide a rich, comprehensive and nourishing school experience.  However, it has always been difficult to gain respect for this stance in a system that is still so deeply engrained with institutionalised religious prejudice. 

The teachers, activists and pupils in our schools would assert that this strong ethical and moral purpose is at least as valid as the standpoint of any religious organisation. Moreover, our teachers regularly report that the Educate Together equality based approach has the important advantage that it is attractive and unifying of families from a wide range of social, cultural or religious backgrounds. From their perspective it creates a strong sense of social respect and harmony, friendship and cohesion between young people of widely differing backgrounds.

From our point of view, this approach is a vital preparation for a generation of children growing up into a diverse, globalised society, where old solutions have failed and where they and their children will have to solve the problems of sustainability for their families and communities and with peoples all over the world.

To articulate this more effectively, Educate Together has developed a curriculum of Ethical Education that is now delivered in its schools both in Ireland and abroad. The Learn Together curriculum has been acknowledge internationally as an example of best practice in inter-cultural education and is now covered in the undergraduate courses all state-funded colleges of teacher education in Ireland.

This curriculum engages in four major areas, Moral and Spiritual Development, Equality and Justice, Belief Systems and Ethics and the Environment. In it children are immersed in discovery based programmes of learning that allow them to explore their own identity and the identity of others from a standpoint of equality and respect. It also allows them to engage in a wide discussion of personal and social values, of ethics and to develop their own viewpoints in an informed, supportive but critical environment. 

In our newly-established secondary schools and colleges, this curriculum is being further developed to provide an ethical education framework for students throughout their school career all the way up to their final exams. 

While Irish education is profoundly averse to comparative data analysis, and longitudinal studies are quite sparse, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the values-rich, equality and respect based approach taken in the Educate Together model is less effective than others in supporting young adults in their formative years.

As I suggested in a tweet earlier today, the huge surge in demand for places in Educate Together schools and for new Educate Together schools to be set up in a wide range of locations across Ireland, suggests that many parents, teachers and pupils consider that if there is indeed a void, the Educate Together model is capable of filling that void rather well.

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