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Minister for Education responds to our request for State Secular schools, and we reply

The Mid West Humanists met the Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan TD on 28 November 2014. We told her then that we seek a system of State secular schools to replace the present system of schools devolved to patrons. We put our detailed requests in writing also.

On 10 March the Minister responded to our request. We sent a reply to the Minister on 16 March. We show both of these here. You will see that the Minister and Department of Education and Skills are making some changes. Yet the need for a peaceful society is still for schools to be secular and not divided by religion, and the State should own the schools. The Minister’s letter does not mention this our main idea.

In our reply we noted to the Minister that at present, because 92% of primary schools are under the Roman Catholic patrons, those schools could feel some duty now to adapt to pupils who are not Roman Catholic. Recently the Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland wrote a report about this adaptation, and the publication alone shows that they feel under some such pressure. Our response to the Minister is about this pressure, and how even that pressure will disappear if the country’s schools come to contain a substantial minority of schools with patrons which treat all children in a secular, egalitarian manner. The RC schools would then be more like their own ethos than they are now, and children at those schools would hear little of the variety of cultures that exist in Ireland.
We are not endorsing the particular plans in the report, which Atheist Ireland has reviewed and found greatly wanting.


The Minister’s letter to the Mid West Humanists: –

10  March 2015

Dear Mr O’Hara,


I refer to your correspondence following our meeting in November 2014.  Please accept my apologies for the delay in replying to you.


Your correspondence raises a number of issues covering a wide range of education topics, many of which were discussed recently at a bilateral meeting with the Humanist Association of Ireland as part of the Structured Dialogue process with the State. I have noted your views and will consider them in progressing policy in this area. However, as you will appreciate, a number of your proposals would require significant amendment to the Constitution to implement. It is not possible for me to give an undertaking that such a programme of amendment will be implemented. As you will be aware the Government has already proposed number of amendments for referendum in May of this year.


In relation to the other views put forward in your letter, you will be aware that a number of these have been examined and discussed by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector and that work is underway to promote greater diversity of patronage in the sector and to promote inclusivity and respect for children of all faiths and none in all schools.


In its response to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, my Department indicated that it is agreeable to the deletion of Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools. The Department is considering how best to progress the particular recommendation relating to Rule 68 having regard to the ongoing implementation of the Forum report recommendations.


Work is also underway by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to develop a curriculum for ERB and Ethics, which will provide consistency, structure, support and a curricular space to allow for learning and for discussion of the issues in this area. This will complement the range of measures in our primary and post primary schools that promote students’ awareness of individual and community rights and identity, as well as awareness of politics and current affairs. These include the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme, which incorporates Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE).


A new short course in Civics, Social and Political Education (CSPE) is available, since last September, to schools to implement, should they wish to do so, as part of their junior cycle programme. The short course aims to inform, inspire, empower and enable young people to participate as active citizens in contemporary society at local, national and global levels based on an understanding of human rights and social responsibilities.


My Department is also currently planning to introduce ‘Politics and Society’ as a new optional Leaving Certificate subject. It is intended that this new subject will be trialled in a number of schools in the 2016/2017 school year. NCCA has also been asked to develop a short course in Philosophy for Junior Certificate.


Regarding the availability of school premises outside normal school hours, schools are encouraged to make their facilities available where possible for community education and recreation purposes, and a circular to this effect was issued to schools in 2005.


I trust that this information will be of interest to you. While it may not be possible to implement all the changes recommended in your letter, I can assure you that I will take note of your views in the development of policy in this area.


Yours sincerely,



Jan O’Sullivan TD

Minister for Education and Skills


The Mid West Humanists’ reply to the Minister’s response: –

16  March 2015

Dear Minister O’Sullivan

We reply here to your response of 10 March 2015 to our letter of November 2014 on providing education in State Secular schools.

1. On the Constitutional amendment(s) – we originally wrote that these are not needed prior to the main changes we seek (a system of secular state schools). Our prime suggestion remains Secular State schools.

2. On greater Diversity of Patronage – we did not ask for this, and we think it is a mistake. We think that the Patron system should be abolished. We do not favour a diversity of schools. We favour one type of school for which the State takes responsibility – as it does for hospitals – by having State organisations own them. With such schools (secular schools), a parent would not have to discover what choice (if any) is available, but would be able to send his or her child to the nearest school and know that it will be neutral and educative about religion and about life without religion.
The main view in our letter was that the present system, of schools which belong to Patrons, should be abolished. Our main view is that instead of schools that Patrons own and run, there should be State schools and these State schools should be secular, that is, they should have no connection with religious organisations or religious principles.

You wrote that increasing the number of schools (under the Patron system), that treat children of all religions and no religion equally and fairly, is continuing. We wrote in our original letter that the process will result in a worse version of apartheid in schools than exists now. As the proportion of schools that admit children with any religion or no religion in a fair manner increases, the schools will very nearly all be of two types – the egalitarian one just mentioned and the Roman Catholic type. Up to the present, managers of Roman Catholic schools know that their type of school make up 92% of all primary schools. This tends to make those schools conscious of a duty to be fair and to adapt to some little degree to the pupils of other religions and of no religion. The Catholic Primary Schools in a Changing Ireland: Sharing Good Practice on the Inclusion of all Pupils which the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference published on 12/03/2015 shows precisely this awareness.
When most Roman Catholic schools know of an egalitarian school not too far away, they will feel no such duty and will adhere more closely to their own principles or ethos. At the school that has a mixture of religions and none, children will receive a cosmopolitan education and will be aware of the variety of cultures and ideas, including variety in religion and its absence. Other children, at Roman Catholic schools, will receive little understanding of the variation in the ideas in the society in which they live. A large group of children turned adults will be less able to integrate in society, which will make sorting out the conflicts within society harder than it is now.
The Irish Times wrote on 24/ and 28/02/2015 that the apartheid of which we warned, if the Department of Education moves towards more schools with patrons that undertake to take kids of all religions and none (and treat them equally), has already begun in some districts.

3. We eagerly await the promised removal of Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools 1965.

4. ERB (Education about Religions and Beliefs) and Ethics – if it became a good course about ethics not derived from supposed revelation, it should be given in all schools. The 2013 ERB and Ethics idea (from the Forum on Patronage in Primary Schools in 2013) does not read like a course in ethics that would be neutral about supposed revelation. We seek a course that does not derive ethics from supposed revelation, though when giving information about the varieties of ethics of different people in this country and the world, the course should say that some people say they adhere to particular morals because they were revealed from a god.
Similarly, both the Civics, Social and Political Education course and the teaching for the Politics and Society Leaving Certificate examination should happen in all schools.

5. We say again that teacher training colleges should be secular in the same way as the primary and secondary schools. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

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


Peter O’Hara, for the Mid West Humanists


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