How do Educate Together schools teach religion and spirituality? A conversation on Twitter with Educate Together Chairman and COO

Yesterday Dave McGinn tweeted that somebody had said they attended an opening ceremony of an Educate Together school, at which seven religious preachers addressed the audience. Update: Emer Nowlan, Educate Together’s Chief Operating Officer, has since clarified that this ceremony did not take place in an Educate Together school. She understands that it took place in November 2008 in a Community National School in Dublin 15, run by DDLETB.

Independently of that issue, Dave’s tweet sparked the following wider discussion between me and Educate Together chairperson Diarmaid MacAonghusa about the general nature of Educate Together schools, including whether they are multi-denominational or non-denominational, how they teach spirituality, and how they adhere to the primary school curriculum and the rules for national schools. I thought it would be useful to record that discussion here.

Diarmaid – Have a look at our website and if you’re looking for a school then arrange a visit to see what they’re like.

Michael – Educate Together schools are multi-deminational. We have a human right to non-denominational education. Educate Together schools actively teach spiritual development. That is not non-denominational. Educate Together schools are state-funded private bodies, with no effective remedy for ECHR complaints. Diarmuid, do you agree that Educate Together schools provide multi-denominational, not non-denominational education?

Diarmaid – This issue has been gone through at length and our position was clarified here

Michael – That conflates ET as a body and the education ET provides. Do you agree ET schools do not provide non-denominational education? Also, it says the obligation to provide religious instruction was removed. How? Are ET schools not subject to Rule 68?

Diarmaid – You should visit some schools and see what actually goes on and be less worried about non vs multi label. No faith formation.

Michael – Can you confirm that ET schools actively teach spiritual development? That is not non-denominational.

Diarmaid – No religious instruction takes place. Come visit, talk to parents. We are the only providers of non faith based edu in Ireland.

Michael – Paul Rowe is correctly complaining today about nod-and-wink approaches to education system. This is another example. Actively teaching spiritual development is faith-based. How could it be otherwise?

Diarmaid – The curriculum is there for you to see and pass judgment on

Michael – Also, ET schools celebrate religious festivals, contrary to Toledo Guidelines. Again, not non-denominational. ET explicitly told the Forum on Patronage that ET schools actively teach spiritual development. Is that not true? The ET curriculum combines moral and spiritual into one strand. Non-denom schools wouldn’t link morality to spirituality.

Diarmaid – Children learn about various festivals. Call it celebrate if you like. And yes, Christmas gets a look in too.

Michael – ET calls it celebrate. That “call it celebrate if you like” is part of the problem. Toledo Guidelines say not to celebrate.

Diarmaid – At the end of the day I know how many children we have provided non faith based education to and how hard we’re working to grow

Michael – You haven’t provided any children non-faith-based education. Actively teaching spiritual development is faith-based. I agree you are providing good multi-denominational education, but you are also undermining the case for non-denominational. Specifically, trying to grow by claiming ET is non-denom, undermines the UN pressure on Ireland to provide actual non-denom.

Diarmaid – We grow by parental demand. We don’t open schools as a result of UN. We provide non faith edu, not talk about it.

Michael – How can actively teaching spiritual development be non-faith-based? Growing by parental demand denies the human rights of some citizens based on the views of their neighbours. Do you agree?

Diarmaid – If we were starting from zero non denom all the way but we’re not and we provide a real alternative. Come visit and see.

Michael – To clarify, you are saying ET schools do not provide non-d education, but provide a real multi-d alternative to denominational?

Diarmaid – I’m saying boundaries are not as b and w as you think and, as an atheist myself, I think u r caught up in labels not practise.

Michael – But I assume ET practices what it says it does? Actively teaching spiritual development, celebrating religious festivals? The labels are important. If you blur them, you are in the nod-and-wink territory Paul Rowe rightly complained about today. Will ET be hiring religious chaplains in any of the second-level schools that you are involved in?

Diarmaid – There will be no chaplain in Hansfield 2nd level, not sure of situ in schools with joint patronage with ETBs

Michael – Would you agree to hiring chaplains in schools with ET/ETB joint patronage? Also, from earlier, do ET schools have to abide by Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools?


I then had the following brief exchange with Emer Nowlan, Educate Together’s Chief Operating Officer.

Emer – Come in and visit a school and see the curriculum in practice, Michael. Easier than explaining in 140 chars.

Michael – Are you implying that the curriculum in practice is different to what ET told the Forum on Patronage?

Emer – I’m inviting you to come and visit a school and learn about the curriculum and approach. That’s all.

Michael – Okay, I’ll rephrase the question more positively. Is the curriculum in practice the same as what ET told the Forum?

Emer – If you are interested in the curriculum, come in and see it taught. It’s a serious invitation. I’ll email you.

Michael – Okay, look forward to hearing from you.


A third strand of this discussion involved Dave, Kate who is studying to be an educational psychologist at UCD, and Diarmaid MacAonghusa. Here are some relevant extracts:

Dave – Is this really what goes on in Educate Together schools? :-/ /cc @micknugent

Kate – at some, yes. They’re multi-denominational, not non-denominational. One of the reasons I’ve issues with them.

Dave – Yeh I know – I guess I had assumed that that was a way of being inclusive but that they did not actively promote Rel

Kate – you can actively promote as long as all religions get equal time. Though obv “all” don’t, as you’d be forever. so I’m not sure on how they define “all”. it seems to be very school dependent, e.g. i know some that go mad for christmas and others aren’t even allowed mention it.

Dave – Ah, I see. Didn’t realise there would be so much variation between them. I’m learning a lot today! Would prefer non-denom now.

Kate – i def want non-demon for my (currently hypothetical) kids, and would prefer to teach in one. Not much choice there though!

Dave – Would have previously assumed ET was the antidote to the current system,but 7 preachers trying to convert my child sounds worse!

Diarmaid – There are no preachers at ET schools, some may have spoken at an opening but never during the school day.

Kate – I have other issues with the ET system too tbh, partly just that everything is up to the individual schools so much. I think the new community national schools are non-denom, have to see how they go.

Diarmaid – The Community National Schools are NOT non denominational.

Kate – there are also multi-denom gaelscoilleanna, no idea how they work though, they’re not under ET.

Diarmaid – One of them is –

Kate – the Gort Alainn website says multi-denominational, not non…?

Diarmaid – yes, it’s an ET school. There are no official non denom schools in Ireland. But in practice ET schools are.


There were also other strands of this discussion, including with other participants, which you can find by following the relevant tweets on the Twitter streams of any of the people I have quoted. If I have left out anything important, please let me know and I will include it.

How do Educate Together schools teach religion and spirituality? A conversation on Twitter with Educate Together Chairman and COO

20 thoughts on “How do Educate Together schools teach religion and spirituality? A conversation on Twitter with Educate Together Chairman and COO

  1. This all sounds so confusing. I had thought that ET schools were decidedly non-denominational, no faith formation of any kind. Children were taught ABOUT religions as part of their social and cultural education. I understood ethics was also part of the curriculum. The word spiritual seems a bit vague and has different meanings for different people. What a lesson in ‘spiritual development’ would entail would be interesting to learn.
    I still think ET schools are the best solution so far until we get secular education for all.

  2. I had assumed it was common knowledge that ET schools are certainly not non-denominational. What surprises me is the apparent lack of consistency of approach to religion between different ET schools, and I have to say I’m taken aback by Mr. MacAonghusa’s cavalier dismissal of a very important distinction in what seems a frantic attempt to prop up ET and ignore its shortcomings. Excuses like “on paper we’re not, but in practice we’re non-denominational” are utter hogwash.

    On a side note, for the reader’s convenience I would make the suggestion that you configure embedded links to open in a new tab. It’s preferable to clicking back and forth.

  3. It’s not an easy area, nor an easy issue and sure the lines are blurred. This is par for the course when a society is changing and moving away from a traditional religious one to a more more pluralist or non religious one. Albeit too slowly for those who would like it to be more rapid.

    Spirituality is also a tricky one. As an atheist myself I don’t really have an issue with that word. Spirituality could be perceived to be a feeling of being connected to the elements that surround us, our universe, nature, the wind and the rain. Superstition in relation to this relationship is where the ‘religious’ development arose. Take the holidays mentioned above for example. Halloween being a surviving superstitious celebration of our interpretation of the natural forces of nature; in this case death and rebirth. However I do choose to see the positive and somewhat organic element of Halloween, and I enjoy celebrating it with my kids. Christmas likewise is commercial and crude. But you can choose to extract the message of kindness and spending time with family from the holiday.

    I’ve entered my kids in an ET understanding that religious and spiritual awareness was discussed, but no religious instruction was delivered. I think the difference between the two is important to grasp. We live in a vast and confusing world. I think if we teach children the causes of WWI, then why not inform them about why some people choose to believe in faith, and were those faiths originated from. But crucially, it is important to teach that some people choose not to believe in such faiths and that either/or is ok.

    I totally see Michael’s argument that ET’s are not the solution to the problem of having no secular education system, and that their small numbers has made them desirable and elitist as a result. Every child in Ireland deserves the same education as the other, and only a united state system of patronage could deliver equality to the problem.

  4. As an atheist, and a parent of two children in an ET school and one who has finished and gone on to secondary, I really don’t understand why there is any argument going on here. ET schools have an ethical curriculum, which teaches children about different religions and covers a lot more besides. I have never had any issues with unwanted spiritual development being forced on my children. The ethical curriculum is summarised here:

    Perhaps the experience varies depending on the school, our family’s experience has been an extremely positive one. The schools are all democratically run, and parents can have a large input into what goes on. It is not possible for an organisation such as ET to monitor everything that happens in all of their schools, they are doing a tremendous job with very scarce resources and are concentrating on expanding the network to make as many schools as they can available, at second level now as well.

    I can see the organisation in action, and have attended AGMs etc. Change comes from its grass roots and people are listened to. Policies are developed by and in consultation with the people involved. The schools welcome children of all faiths and none and teach them all together. This is what I want for my children, I don’t see why anyone would think there is an ideal, non-denominational school out there that could do a better job. A visit to an ET school would definitely help anyone trying to get a better idea of how they work.

  5. I had the non-dom V multi-dom pointed out to me about ET first time I discussed it.

    We live in a multi-dom society and while non-dom would be preferable once there is no favoritism (as in the RCC and CofI) then surely multi-dom is a better reflection of society. As a humanist I want my children to be treated the same as everyone else – nothing special because of my beliefs and I want them to learn to tolerate others beliefs so long as it is reciprocated.

    Besides – teaching a child that there are multiple religions each believing their god(s) is(are) the the one true one is probably the best ways of making them question the whole faith issue more objectively.

  6. I am very pleased to read Anne Phelan’s account of an ET school. It is exactly as I had imagined it to be. My faith in ET schools (no pun intended) has been restored!

  7. My daughter has just finished her primary education in an ET school and I’m satisfied that for the eight years she was there there was no religious instruction or promotion. There was discussion of people’s beliefs including atheism but there is no harm in that.
    She has started seconday in an ET school and while there was a long opening ceremony (Very long) there was absolutely no religious element involved.

  8. I have and do support children with special needs in a variety of schools including ET schools in my capacity as a Clinical Psychologist. I have seen no evidence of religious teachings in any ET school I have had dealings with. I am curious as to the inclusion of the opinion of an ed psych student? If you want a psychologist’s perspective ask a qualified person to comment not a student

  9. I find it a tad hypocritical that it is the people who claim to be atheists who want their children to attend non denominational schools. What are they afraid of? No one is born atheist. People make up their own minds about their beliefs and these atheists’ children will one day decide what they believe in so why not expose them to all denominations and allow them make up their own minds.

  10. I’ll respond to all of these points over the next while, in reverse order.

    #9 James and #5 Andrew, you misunderstand what we are looking for in a non-denominational school.

    We want nondenominational schools that teach about all religions and beliefs in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, in accordance with the OSCE Toledo Guiding Principles on on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools. We want them for the very reasons that you outline. We would be as opposed to atheist schools as we are to religious schools.

    However, currently all schools in Ireland, including Educate Together, are legally obliged to promote the spiritual development of students, and to abide by Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, which includes that a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school. We need too change the law in order to have inclusive secular non-denominational schools.

  11. #8 Liezl, I included that as it was the start of the Twitter conversation. I prioritised the other strands because the opinion of the Chairperson of Educate Together is clearly more relevant.

    All schools in Ireland, including Educate Together, are legally obliged to promote the spiritual development of students, and to abide by Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, which includes that a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.

  12. #7 Pat, I am delighted that you had that experience. We need to have an education system where everyone is guaranteed that experience, rather than being dependent on who happens to run whatever school you are lucky enough to live near enough to and get a place in.

  13. #4 Anne and #6 Anna,

    I am pleased that you have had a good experience. If your child has not been actively taught spiritual development, then your particular school is not fulfilling its legal obligation to do this.

    Also, the ET curriculum links morality and spirituality, which contravenes the conscience of those who do not believe morality is associated with spirituality.

    It sounds as if it is a good thing too say that the schools are democratically run, but that actually hides a breach of human rights which the UN pointed out to Ireland in Geneva.

    Parents have a human right to a secular non-denominational education for their children. That right is not dependent on the preferences of a majority of their neighbours. That would mean (indeed does mean in Ireland) that some citizens have their human rights vindicated, and others don’t, depending on the preferences of their neighbours.

  14. #3 Joe, I agree with your conclusion. We need a state secular inclusive non-denominational education system that treats everybody equally. If some parents want to add denominational or multi-denominational schools on top of that, fair enough, but that should not be the foundation of the system as it is here.

    With regard to spirituality, at present there are no Patron bodies that refuse on the grounds of principle to uphold the Primary School curriculum. Schools are not legally obliged to write down their ethos (characteristic spirit) or explain in writing where exactly they are integrating it into the various subjects under the curriculum and the daily life of the school.

    One of the key areas of the Primary School Curriculum is to promote the spiritual dimension of life. The concept of spirituality is not defined in the Education Act 1998 and in the Primary School Curriculum it is assumed that it based on a transcendent element within human experience. Spirituality is linked to religious education and developing spiritual and moral values and a knowledge of god.

    The Primary School Curriculum states that:

    “The spiritual dimension of life expresses itself in a search for truth and in the quest for a transcendent element within human experience. The importance that the curriculum attributes to the child’s spiritual development is expressed through the breadth of learning experiences the curriculum offers, through the inclusion of religious education as one of the areas of the curriculum, and through the child’s engagement with the aesthetic and affective domains of learning.”
    (Introduction Primary School Curriculum, page 27)

    “The spiritual dimension is a fundamental aspect of individual experience, and its religious and cultural expression is an inextricable part of Irish culture and history. Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.”
    (Primary School Curriculum Page 58)

    In addition to the above Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools reads:

    “Of all parts of a school curriculum, Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.”

  15. #1 Anna, you say that ET schools are the best solution so far until we get secular education for all. I agree with that, and the biggest overall obstacle to secular education for all is the Catholic Church.

    However, in this particular instance, ET are currently the biggest obstacle to using the UN Geneva report to pressurise the Government to vindicate our human rights.

    That is because the UN report has now put the Government under pressure to provide non-denominational schools regardless of parental demands in localities, and some people will welcome any excuse for the State to get out of that requirement.

    What better excuse, in Irish nod and wink style, than having ET claim that they are already meeting the UN requirements, even though they are not and indeed cannot under Irish law?

    After years of lobbying, we are now finally on the verge of a significant breakthrough, and some people who want to keep the status quo will welcome enough confusion being created to try to weather the storm.

  16. Thanks for the reply Michael.

    I don’t have a WordPress myself but a here’s the simplest method I found after a quick search, so hopefully it’s correct.

    It can apparently be done in your WordPress settings. Go to Appearance > Menus, click the Screen Options tab in the upper right, and check the box next to Link Target.

    Each of your menu items will now show a checkbox to open the link in a new tab/window. Check those boxes and resave your menu.

  17. To clarify, the ceremony referenced at the beginning of this post did not take place in an Educate Together school. We understand that it took place in November 2008 in a Community National School in Dublin 15, run by DDLETB. Such a ceremony would not be considered appropriate in an Educate Together school.

    We have never heard of similar ceremonies happening in Educate Together schools, but if others have, we would ask them to contact our national office with the details. We have contacted the original tweeter to clarify this, and would ask others who have re-posted to also post a clarification in relation to this mistake.

    We would also like to reassure posters here again that religious instruction does not take place in Educate Together schools, and that our Charter requires that the rights of children from all backgrounds are equally respected. The Learn Together Ethical Education curriculum includes strands which teach about belief systems, morality and spirituality. This curriculum has been carefully developed in accordance with human rights standards and the Toledo Principles, so that these matters are considered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. We welcome debate about the content and delivery of this curriculum, and conduct regular reviews.

    Human rights and democracy are at the core of our organisation’s values, and we would take any suggestions of human rights standards being compromised very seriously. If parents of children attending our schools have concerns in this regard, we suggest they raise these concerns immediately with their school.

    For more information about the Educate Together model, see our recent clarification:

    Emer Nowlan, Chief Operating Officer, Educate Together

  18. #18 Emer, Thanks, I have updated the start of the post to include your clarification about the ceremony. I’ll respond later to the other points that you make, as they are all substantive points that deserve a considered response.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to top