Advocacy & Media
Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

Is ‘multi-denominational’ an ethos?

Emer, Chief Operating Officer

Fr Michael Drumm is right - there is a lot of confusion in the language around school ethos and religion in Ireland (The Irish Catholic, Thursday April 3rd). How are parents supposed to know what ‘multi-denominational’ means, when it means different things in different schools? What does any school mean by ‘religious education’? And so on.

A word of wisdom passed on to me when I started working in Educate Together by Micheal Johnston, one of the founders of the Dalkey School Project: Never use the word multi-denominational without defining it. The Educate Together charter defines multi-denominational as:

‘all children having equal rights of access to the school, and children of all social, cultural and religious backgrounds being equally respected'

Under the Education Act, schools with Educate Together’s patronage have a legal obligation to  uphold this principle. 

This definition of ‘multi-denominational’ was drawn up carefully, and we have now had 35 years to reflect on its implementation in practice. Although it impacts on the way religious education is taught, it extends far beyond this, and reflects a deep commitment to the equal rights of every child in every sense.

When the first Educate Together primary school opened in 1978, it was the first in the country to be defined as ‘multi-denominational.’ Although the first schools were told by the Department of Education to attempt to provide religious instruction for all children, it soon became clear that it was impossible to do this in practice while respecting the rights of every child in the school equally. 

Happily the obligation to provide religious instruction was removed, and this paved the way for the development of a comprehensive Ethical Education curriculum, the Learn Together, which is taught in Educate Together schools today.

This curriculum helps all children, whatever their family’s beliefs, to develop a critical awareness and understanding of moral decision-making, and an understanding of the teachings of religious and non-theistic belief systems. Ethical Education focuses on questions of equality, justice, sustainability and active citizenship. It helps learners to develop morally and spiritually and to think critically, and empowers them to make a difference. 

For parents who want their children to receive religious instruction, or be prepared for religious sacraments, such as First Holy Communion, Educate Together schools make space available for after-school classes to be organised.  

While routine references to Educate Together schools as ‘multi-denominational’ suggests that their approach to religion is their distinguishing feature, this is only one of four principles underpinning the ethos. For most parents seeking Educate Together schools in towns around the country, the commitment to a child-centred approach is more important. Many children in our schools hold the democratic principle dearest because it ensures that their voices are heard in decision-making.

For many school types in Ireland, the legal requirement to attempt to deliver religious instruction to all children remains, enshrined in their articles of management or directed by circular. Primary and second-level schools managed by ETBs (formally VECs) are so obliged. So are Community and Comprehensive schools - all of which, until this year, have had denominational partners among their trustees. Despite this significant difference, these schools have come to be described as multi-denominational in recent years, and this has led to the confusion that Fr Drumm describes. 

Perhaps it is time to start a conversation about the word ‘multi-denominational’. There are those who would say that in any other country, schools that do not prioritise any one religious viewpoint would be described as ’secular’ (a term about which there are similar debates, by the way). There are others who would say that ‘secular’ does not adequately describe the rich consideration given to religious and cultural difference within the Learn Together curriculum

The reality is that school ethos cannot be defined in any one word, especially one so variously understood.

So for parents (and teachers) to make informed choices about schools, they should not ask if schools are multi-denominational. They should ask the questions that matter to them. Are the rights and beliefs of all children equally respected in the school? Do children learn about religious and other beliefs, or are they instructed in one faith? What are the core values of the school? What role do parents, children, teachers and the patron have in defining those values?

For more information about the Learn Together curriculum visit the Learn Together page on our website

Emer Nowlan, Chief Operating Officer, Educate Together

Faith Formation Outside School Hours

A Report on the Transition to Faith Formation Outside School Hours in Early Educate Together Schools

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