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Mid West Humanists tell Minister for Education that schools should be secular and in State ownership

A delegation from the Mid West Humanists met Ms Jan O’Sullivan T.D., Minister for Education and Skills at her office in Limerick on 28  November 2014.

We asked the Minister that Ireland’s education system change from the present system to a State system of entirely secular schools.


Here is the full text of the letter we gave to the Minister at the visit.


To Jan O’Sullivan TD, Minister for Education and Skills

A Secular and Child- centred Education system for Ireland


Dear Minister O’Sullivan


We are people with no religion, and there are between 10% and 15% of the population of Ireland who have no religion, perhaps more – the proportion is certainly growing.

While we note that the education system is biased towards religion (and towards some few religions even more strongly),
the changes that we seek to Ireland’s education system, in addition to removing this bias, will make it easier for government to deal with the increasing variety of religions to which people in Ireland belong – including making it easier to provide education.

The Mid West Humanists ask that the system of schools in Ireland, primary and second-level, become a system of entirely secular schools that the state operates itself. Several other changes in relevant law and in the curriculum would follow from this plan
We propose this change with rational arguments, and we aim to show that this would be the best for society in Ireland, with reasons that do not depend on the particular needs or requests of people with no religion, nor on the particular number or proportion of the population who hold any particular religious or non-religious view.

The Mid West Humanists’ summary statement on Education

Numbers refer to the detailed items after this summary

1. The Mid West Humanists ask that the Oireachtas and Government of Ireland change from the present system of administering schools, primary and second-level, to an entirely secular system of schools that the state operates itself.

2. We ask that teacher training colleges become secular in the same way.

3 to 8. We ask that the curriculum include subjects to enable citizens to live in a secular society that includes people with a large variety of religious, political, social, and cultural views.

9 to 11. The Education Act 1998, the Employment Equality Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2000, and Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools 1965 discriminate in favour of religion and its adherents and against people with no religion and their philosophical stance on life. We ask that these be amended so as to end discrimination.

12. We suggest state limits on how private schools operate.


Changes Required in Ireland’s Education System – Mid West Humanists


  1. The state should provide primary and secondary schools that are open to all children, free of charge. All public schools should belong to State organisations, either national, regional, or local. Education must centre on each child and aim to maintain a child’s natural curiosity and natural critical thinking. Schools that the State funds from the people’s taxes should have no connection whatever with any organisation, that is not answerable to the people via the Government or the Oireachtas. Schools that the state funds should not give power or control to any religious organisation.

Teacher Training

  1. Teacher training colleges should be third-level colleges, or their departments, that are secular in the same way as the primary and secondary schools, as just described. Student entry to the teacher training colleges should require no religious or similar qualification, and training should not involve teaching the tenets or ideas of one religion. Training should include training for the subjects we mention next.

Subjects in the Curriculum – centred on the Child

  1. All schools should teach to all children an account of the religions in the world – not merely in Ireland – with similar accounts of life-stances that do not involve religion or belief in a god. This would include the reasons the various people describe for holding to the various religions and the other life-stances. Schools should not present these ideas or doctrines as facts, and should not carry out worship or try to persuade children to adopt any of these ideas.
  2. All schools should teach philosophy – analytical and critical thinking – starting in infants classes.
  3. All schools should teach about the state and the society in which the children live, with some comparisons with other societies and states, past and present.
  4. All schools should teach about social and personal relations together with interpersonal morals, and about relationships, sex, and health.

School Premises availability

  1. State schools should be available for extra-curricular classes – outside normal school hours – to be given to some or all of the school’s children, or to other persons, and for other gatherings.

Classes in particular Religions

  1. A school could include classes to teach about a particular religion among the extra-curricular classes. The school should not organise these classes but should facilitate those who would organise them

Changes in several Acts and Regulations

  1. The Education Act 1998 should be amended –
    so that schools must respect the human rights of all children;
    so that an ethos of a school – which should no longer be compulsory as at present – must also respect the children’s human rights (at present the Act sets no limits on the content of the ethos); and
    to oblige schools to teach to all children an account of the religions in the world (not merely in Ireland), with similar accounts of life-stances that do not involve religion or belief in a god.
  2. A school’s right to discriminate in employment of teachers in order to maintain its ethos should be removed from the Employment Equality Act 1998. A school’s right to discriminate in admission of children or trainee teachers, to maintain its ethos, should be removed from the Equal Status Act 2000.
  3. The Rules for National Schools 1965 and the national curriculum should be amended –
    to cease setting religion as the most important subject and to stop it being integrated within other subjects;
    to remove the interpretation of “spiritual” as automatically connected to a “higher power”; and
    to oblige all schools to teach about religion and about other philosophies of life that do not involve belief in a god in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner – the Toledo Guiding Principles.

Private Schools

  1. The state could permit other organisations to operate schools, but not with funds from taxes. If the state permitted such schools, the State would still have a duty to children attending there that they receive a reasonable and adequate education. The State would have to regularly inspect such schools. The State would have to compel the private schools to teach the 4 subjects above in paragraphs 3, 4, 5, and 6, and to prohibit teaching of religious ideas as facts during the normal school day.


Why Secular Schools are needed, and how they will help

In the nineteenth century, the then government of Ireland, under the parliament in London, came to have a system of schools which the State funds, but which other organisations (patrons) own. A State starting a system of schools for the first time would not automatically set up such a system. Among people now, who know only such a system, some think it the most natural purely because they know no other system.

There is no compelling reason for a democratic country to have such a system.

Reason No.

  1. Promoting Harmony in society

A state ensures that there are schools, and compels children to attend school, so that they have at least a minimum of education. People who are more educated are likely to prosper more; and with people both being sufficiently well off, and socialised in the society’s moral rules, there will be more peace and harmony in the society, and less crime and other trouble.

There is no evidence that to divide schools by religion advances prosperity, or a harmonious society.

Children who are educated in an inclusive setting will appreciate that people who have differing parental backgrounds and belief systems are nevertheless just fellow students with the same range of emotions and interests as they themselves.

Where schools are segregated by religion, children grow to be adults among mostly only people of the same religion. They thus come to have a stronger sense that they and their co-religionists are a separate group.

Awareness of groups usually includes an idea – sometimes weak, sometimes strong – that other groups are distinctly different. In some circumstances this may include the idea that people in other groups are inferior or bad. Most of the time this does not cause much trouble, but in more difficult times it can lead one group to think that another group is to blame for some present difficulty in the society. This has led to civil disorder, and in the worst cases, to war and genocide.

A society or a government cannot stop all ideas about subdivision into groups, but it is wise for a government not to add to such ideas.

Accordingly, the main reason that the Mid West Humanists offer for the system of secular schools is to ensure that children, as they grow up, meet other children with as much a variety as possible of religious, cultural, political, and social ideas; and that they see all other people as in principle the same as themselves, and that their concept of division of society or people into groups is as weak as possible.

Reason No.

  1. Centring Education on each Child

We favour education being centred on the child, and secular schools are likely to be child-centred, maintaining and promoting a child’s natural curiosity and natural critical thinking.

Reason No.

  1. Avoiding Discrimination

The Irish system of schools divided by religion appears quite satisfactory or very satisfactory to many parents in the largest religious group, which is the Roman Catholic group. That this group is so large, that it was for some years 95% of the population (84% according to the 2011 census), has caused many who identify with this group to have nearly no awareness of the needs of any children or parents outside this group. Among those in the Roman Catholic group who are aware of those people’s needs, a good many, because they know that it is easy for the State to provide schools in all districts dedicated to their own group, have little sense that to provide schools dedicated to each of the other religious and/or non-religious groups is not at all so easy.

If a person thinks it is correct for the State to provide schools particular to each religion, this cannot be provided in practice for any group other than the majority group, in the 1700 districts that have only one primary school. In many of the other districts, which have several schools, it is still not possible.

The system of patrons operating schools, where the main feature differing between patrons is religion, discriminates between two sets of parents and children. It discriminates by providing to parents who identify with the Roman Catholic schools a school distinctly adapted to their chosen religion, while for all other groups it can at best provide some schools with an adaptation that is a mixture of several somewhat related religions, but mostly cannot provide a distinct adaptation as it does to the Roman Catholic group.

In addition to the discrimination just described, because the Roman Catholic group are so large, awareness that there is discrimination is very low.

While the 1800 districts with only one primary school do not contain half the population, many districts with a small number of schools have also only Roman Catholic schools, so it is well over half the population who have no choice but a Roman Catholic school. The Constitution gives a right not to receive the religious instruction. The present curriculum spreads the mention of the religion of the school through all subjects. Insofar as there is one period of the school day when religious instruction is a bit more concentrated, most parents, who ask to have their children not partake in that, are asked to come then to the school or make their own arrangement at that hour to supervise their child.

Thus in practice it is not possible that your child not receive this religious education, and schools discriminate against any child who is not a Roman Catholic. Further, even if schools provided a proper service and themselves arranged to supervise the children who do not attend the religion class, this would still mark those children as different in the minds of their peers who do attend the religion class, and this amounts to unreasonable discrimination and is contrary to human rights law.

Reason No.

  1. The State being responsible for what happens in schools

In the Louise O’Keeffe case in the European Court of Human Rights, it became clear that it is a problem for a child in Ireland that the State obliges children to attend school, but the State has claimed that it is not responsible for ensuring that children are not being abused while in school. To remedy this, schools must be state organisations. When they become State organisations they must be secular.


Arguments for a Secular Education and not for more of any particular type of Patron

The Mid West Humanists are not asking the Minister for Education and Skills or the Government to enable more Educate Together schools. While these are good schools, the system in which they sit cannot provide secular education to more than a small portion of the people of Ireland. We are concerned that, if the Department of Education moved to have more of these schools, and presented this as a step towards schools generally becoming secular, this will delay the change that is really necessary. The really necessary change is that all schools be secular so that all children can attend schools where their human rights to an education free of indoctrination, and to a sense of unity with the whole of society – not being segregated – are respected.


If the Department of Education and Skills enabled a lot more Educate Together schools, schools’ patrons might be half Educate Together and half Roman Catholic, with only a tiny number of other schools. Children at school would be in 2 major groups. Those at the Educate Together schools would have a good appreciation of the many social, political, religious, and cultural variations in society. Those at the Roman Catholic schools would have a relatively if not very restricted appreciation of this variation. This could produce a worse version of a society split into groups than now – one half of people would understand the great variation within society, and the other half would have little sense of this variation and would think that their own group is special.

Other faults in the Education System needing amendment

There are serious faults concerning education in the Constitution, the laws, and the administrative rules.

Education Act 1998

The Education Act mandates the system of schools divided by religion. It directs each school to have an ethos, though it does not define an ethos and sets no limits on the ideas that an ethos may include. It directs the patron to run the school in keeping with the ethos, and does not require the school to respect the civil or human rights of the children. All of these should be reversed – the schools should be obliged to respect children’s rights, an ethos should not be mandatory, and an ethos’s content should have limits.

Employment Equality Act 1998

The Employment Equality Act prohibits discrimination in employment on nine grounds, of which religion is one. It has an exception, that a school can discriminate in the employment of teachers on the ground of religion, if this is necessary in order to maintain the ethos of the school. The exception must be abolished.

Equal Status Act 2000

The Equal Status Act prohibits discrimination in services, on the same nine grounds, of which religion is one. It has an exception on religion – a school can discriminate in the admission of children, or a college in the admission of trainee teachers, on the ground of religion, if this is necessary in order to maintain the ethos of the school or college. The exception must be abolished.

Rules for Education in Primary Schools 1965 Rule 68

Rule 68 writes that religion is the most important subject in school, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school, and the teacher is to mould the children in religious attitudes, including obedience. This discriminates against all children’s natural moral attitudes. There is no function for any of the sentences in Rule 68. It should all be deleted. All schools should be neutral about particular religions, and teachers must teach about religion in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner, fitting with the children’s human rights – the change we propose in the Education Act would ensure this.


The Constitution and Education

In 2013 we asked the Constitutional Convention to propose these same changes.

Article 42 – Education

Part 1 of Article 42 tells parents that it is their duty to carry out the education of their children. It tells them it is their duty to do several particular types of education. The first type is religious (“religious and moral”). Here are two disadvantages to the inclusion of “religious”.
A. This appears to direct a parent, who by the use of reason and evidence concludes that gods do not exist and thinks that religion is a mistake, to make their children believe in religion, that is, to believe something that the parent is quite sure is false, and for which there is no evidence.
B. We support Part 1 of Article 42 on the “inalienable [right and] duty of parents” to provide moral education. Good morals among the citizens, and the young and growing up citizens, make it easier for the state institutions to govern the people, and reduce civil strife. However, if the State in our Constitution also tells parents to teach religious morals to children, then the State tells various parents to teach their children to observe different moral rules (there are, and there inevitably would be, several different religions in Ireland or in any other country). To encourage such difference may lead to social conflict, which is not in the interest of the State or the citizens.

The State should not prohibit parents from such choice. Article 44.2.1 guarantees freedom of conscience and religion – this is sufficient to stop the State so prohibiting parents.
The State should not encourage or direct such disunity in civic morals.
“religious and” should be removed.

Part 4 of Article 42, at the end, describes some circumstances when the State should step beyond merely to “provide for” education as at the start of Part 4. Schools and other education services that the State provides should not be divided according to religion, as in our main argument about schools being secular. To segregate citizens into groups when they are young thereby teaches them that these groups are relatively permanent and enduring. When there is any trouble in society, those people, who see society as composed of groups, are more prone to blame the trouble on another group, making trouble between groups more likely.
Part 4 writes of “rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation” – these are liable to be interpreted as forcing the State to operate these schools divided by religion, whereas divided schools promote young people to see society divided into groups, which tends to increase civil strife. As mentioned under B just above, while the State should not prevent parents teaching religion (including that religion’s version of morals) to their children, the State should not encourage people to have considerably different morals, as this makes conflict more likely.

So “rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation” should be deleted.


Article 44 – Religion

Part 2 sub-Part 2 has not succeeded (in the Supreme Court) in stopping the state funding religious chaplains in vocational schools. Further it has not stopped the state handing taxes to religious-operated schools and hospitals, with the permanent wealth coming from those taxes remaining with the religious bodies. This sub-Part must be strengthened.

Part 2 sub-Part 4 allows the state to discriminate between schools linked to religions and schools not linked to a religion. This must end. The equal rights for schools not linked to a religion must be inserted.


Restatement of Mid West Humanists’ General Aims

We seek a State and a society that treats all people equally, irrespective of their religion or lack of religion. This would mean that the State should take no interest in whether you have a religion or not, and which religion (if you have one). The State would have no special regard to religious groups.

We support strongly the right of people to choose to have a religion and to choose not to have a religion, as long as this does not interfere with the rights of other people.


We ask for a system of schools where all schools are secular, that is, the schools would be open to all children and not likely to discourage any child or his or her parents from attending, by the school not being involved in teaching belief in any religious ideas, and by instead teaching about many religions and about philosophies of life that do not involve belief in any god or in an afterlife.


Most importantly, we seek these changes because they will produce a society that will be better for all people, and easier for the government to govern.

We know that during 2014 the United Nations, in reviewing Ireland’s compliance with human rights conventions that Ireland has signed, has criticised the government for failing to provide secular education. However, we care most to inform the Minister and the Government that a secular education system will promote peace and harmony in this society, and will make the job of government easier.


The Order of changes to reach a Secular Education

While the Mid West Humanists seek some changes in the Constitution, we believe that the Oireachtas and Government can set up a secular system of schools before any constitutional changes

The Constitution allows but does not mandate the system of schools in Ireland. Article 42.4 writes that the State shall provide for free primary education. This allows the State to have the patronage system, but it is open to the State to provide the education itself. So, while several parts of Articles 42 and 44 should be changed, we ask the Oireachtas and the Government to start the change to secular schools without reference to the time when there will be a referendum to change Articles 42 and 44.


The Mid West Humanists thank you for hearing their views on why schools in Ireland should be secular, and for reading this letter.



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