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Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

We Know Change Has To Happen - But How?

Jennifer Buttner, South Kildare Educate Together Second-Level Campaign

Jennifer Buttner of the South Kildare Educate Together Second-Level Campaign writes about Educate Together's 'truly inclusive equality-based model of education'


There are some facts that are so self-evident that they hardly need to be stated: no child should feel excluded at school. All children deserve to thrive in an environment that accepts them.  No child should be labelled ‘different’ in a state institution that should be nurturing their intellect, their spirit of enquiry and their sense of self. No child should feel they cannot fully and actively participate in class.

In June, as part of a press release from the Department of Education and Skills announcing the opening of two ETB-run Community National schools, Minister Jan O’Sullivan stated that:  ‘the schools in question are being established to meet a demographic need’ and that ‘they place a particular emphasis on providing for demonstrated parental demand for plurality and diversity of patronage’.

The phrase ‘plurality and diversity of patronage’ coupled with ‘demographic need’ is an interesting one. Demographic need refers to the basic need for school places – too many children, not enough school places. Simple enough. However, the former phrase requires more unpicking. Patrons are the bodies that run schools in this country. Every school has a patron whether it be a religious order, the local diocese, the Department of Education, An Forus Patrunachta or Educate Together. The patron directs the ‘ethos’ of a school and there is usually at least two and a half hours of dedicated ‘patron time’ in the school week during which school ethos is taught. In 96 per cent of schools this ‘ethos’ is religious and so ‘faith formation’ is carried out - children are told that the faith reflected in the school ethos is truth.

However, the landscape of religious belief in Ireland is evolving and the experience of Educate Together start-up groups like ours in South Kildare highlights that patronage is an extremely important issue for a significant and fast increasing minority of families.  Let’s look at some more facts. 

It is a fact that in 2012 the Department of Education found that there was significant enough demand for Catholic schools to be divested to Educate Together in 25 towns and cities around Ireland. The sad reality that little progress has been made in the majority of these areas does not negate this fact.

It is also a fact that we are seeing significant changes in attitudes towards the Catholic Church, evidenced in the large increase in non-religious marriages and funerals taking place, and most recently in the Marriage Equality referendum result. These are families who are entitled to send their children to schools that reflect their worldview and principles.  

It is a fact that there is growing parental demand for the Educate Together model of education - start-up groups like ours see this more and more with each passing day – in South Kildare we have over 1,000 registered names for a second-level Educate Together school, and rising. These are certainly not families who want the present system retained.

This issue is not purely a one of religion versus secularism - parents choose schools for their children for a variety of reasons. About half of Educate Together students come from Catholic families, and many of these parents, including me, organise Roman Catholic instruction classes for their children outside of school hours, on school grounds. These Catholic families, like mine, are choosing Educate Together’s truly inclusive equality-based model of education. Parents and families, all faiths and none, want Educate Together schools because they feel this model of education best prepares their children for today's diverse, globalised world. 

In the protected confines of a child’s life, school and home are the main arenas of experience and learning.  Imagine the confusion of a child when a conflict exists between what they hear at school and at home. If faith is taught as truth in school but is disregarded at home who is the child to believe – teacher or parent? How can we produce a generation of well-adjusted, capable and open-minded adults if we can’t demonstrate to them as children how different worldviews can co-exist without clashing?

Educate Together wants to bring equality-based education to all families that want to access it. Every year that Educate Together does not open a school is another year where children may be exposed to the feelings of not fully participating in the school day because they are not taking part in faith formation.

We know change has to happen. We need to ask ourselves how. Ireland is soon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1916 proclamation and its commitment to ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’. If Ireland is to have an education system in which all children are cherished and respected, then real progress to establish a national network of equality-based schools must be made, now. 

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