The Government today launched its Action Plan for Education, which it says is aimed at becoming the best education service in Europe. It is already the best education service in Europe for breaching the human rights of atheists, secularists, and members of minority faiths who want inclusive schools that treat all children equally regardless of religious belief.
Atheist Ireland will immediately highlight this in three ways:
We will raise it next week when we address the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and the OSCE in Warsaw about Ireland’s human rights record. We regularly brief the UN, Council of Europe, OSCE and other human rights regulatory bodies about religious discrimination in Ireland.
We will be seeking a meeting with the Oireachtas Education Committee which will be reviewing the Action Plan before it is adopted as a Statement of Strategy. When Atheist Ireland addressed the Oireachtas Education Committee two years ago, they agreed with us that our system of multiple patronage and multiple ethos in schools can lead to segregation and inequality. We now ask them to build on this conclusion.
We have already sought a joint meeting between the Minister for Education and Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland. We are three groups with very different world views, but we are united in our support for freedom of religion or belief, freedom from discrimination and equality before the law.
This State-approved religious discrimination is fundamental and systemic. The vast majority of publicly-funded Irish schools are run by churches. They have exemptions from our equality laws. This does not happen in any other country.
State-funded Irish schools are legally allowed to discriminate on the ground of religion by preventing children from getting into their local schools, by refusing to teach the State curriculum in an objective manner, and by using their religious ethos to refuse to employ teachers.
The Government’s Action Plan barely acknowledges these fundamental breaches of human rights. Yet nine different UN and Council of Europe human rights bodies have already told Ireland that our schools breach these rights.
The Action Plan and Religious Discrimination
The Action Plan refers in passing to ‘considering issues of competing rights in the Constitution.’ Bizarrely, the Irish State currently addresses this issue by claiming that it is constitutionally obliged to buttress religious discrimination, even in publicly funded schools.
The Government should be well beyond saying that it will ‘consider’ this scandal. Instead, it should be committing to end State-funded religious discrimination, either by legislation or, if the Government believes it is unconstitutional, then by referendum.
The Action Plan commits to establishing 400 multi-denominational or non-denominational schools. But this seems extremely unlikely to happen. There will be only five new primary schools this year, and three more next year, and there is no description of their patronage.
Even if it happened, this approach would simply make the problem worse. 400 such schools out of over 3,000 will mean that most families will still have no access to secular education, and the minority of families who do will be segregated from their local communities.
Also, without changes to the Education Act and the school curriculum, it is in practice impossible to have a non-denominational school in Ireland. There are currently no non-denominational schools. Educate Together schools are multi-denominational, and ETB schools are denominational in nature.
The Action Plan refers to the new proposed NCCA course in Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics. But it fails to recognise that this course will require changes to the Education Act if it is to be delivered in an objective manner consistent with human rights standards.
Apart from referring to the new course in Education about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics, the only reference to religion is considering the impact on minority religions of fairer school admissions policies. Bizarrely, this does not mean considering members of minority religions who are being discriminated against. It means protecting the right of minority religions to discriminate against others in the State-funded schools that they are given control of.
‘Community support’ and ‘parental choice’
The Action Plan says that a road map has been agreed for a phased transfer of Catholic schools to new patrons, where the support of communities exist. This does not reflect the reality on the ground. The Catholic Church is in practice reluctant to transfer any patronage, and is seeking to have a stronger Catholic ethos in the majority of schools that it would retain control of.
Phrases like ‘community support’ and ‘parental choice’ are positive-sounding terms to hide the reality of religious discrimination. It means that atheist, secular and minority faith parents might have their human right to a religiously-neutral education, but only if their neighbours agree. We wouldn’t tolerate such inequality in the provision of any other state service, and we shouldn’t tolerate it with education.
For example, the Programme for Government talks about safeguarding ‘the right’ of parents to send their children to denominational schools, while describing other types of schools only in terms of ‘needs’. But there is no right for parents to have the State fund any particular type of denominational education. If there was such a right, then it would have to apply to all parents and not just religious ones, and that is clearly impractical for obvious reasons.
The State has a duty to respect equally the human rights of all children, parents and teachers. This requires a national network of public secular schools, inclusive of all, neutral between religions and atheism, and focused on the educational needs of all children equally. This requires changes to the four key areas of Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching.
This Action Plan does not address the fundamental and systemic nature of the religious discrimination in Irish schools and the undermining of the constitutional and human rights of children, parents and teachers. Plurality of patronage can never achieve pluralism in education.