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Mid West Humanists’ Submission to Minister for Education and Skills on admission rules to National Schools

On 16 January 2017 the Department of Education sought submissions from interested persons and groups on the role of denominational religion in the school admissions process and possible approaches for making changes.

The Mid-West Humanists today 11 March 2017 have sent the following submission to the Department.


Mid West Humanists                                                           March 2017


To Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Education and Skills


  1. The Mid-West Humanists make this submission
  2. Who the Mid-West Humanists are
  3. Mid-West Humanists’ reasons to meet includes the problems with education for those with no religion
  4. The plan we submit will benefit also people in religions with less numerous adherents, and will make governing the State and keeping peace easier
  5. Subjects that the Consultation Paper and the Minister mention, which this Submission uses
    5.1. Lower admission priority and the pressure to baptise are not fair to families and parents
    5.2. Ethos is a part of Approach 4(2) – so this Submission addresses ethos
    5.3. Understanding the different religions in the community and including all children with respect
    5.4. The Constitution of Ireland, parts relevant to education and State schools
  6. Principles of the Mid-West Humanists on which their view how to run National Schools is built
    6.1. A society fair to all people, and no rights for institutions
    6.2. Children’s rights,
    1) to develop intellectually, that adults and the State not blur their differentiation of ideas based on evidence and reason from ideas that people believe without evidence
    2) to know all the variety of people among whom they live/ will live, to feel at home in society
  7. The Mid-West Humanists’ view on the Paper’s 4 or 6 suggested approaches to admissions to schools
    7.1. General – all 4 or 6 approaches are unreasonable
    7.2. Approaches 1, 2, 3, 4(3)
    7.3. Approach 4(2) – pressure to agree to ethos is the same as pressure to baptise, unfair
    7.4. Approach 4(1) – children’s rights will be infringed after admission unless ethos is secular
  8. The Mid-West Humanists’ own view on the best admission rules, and the correct ethos
    8.1. Repeal the Equal Status Act 2000 Section 7.3(c) entirely
    8.2. Teachers must teach all the religions together to all children together, fairly and neutrally
    8.3. To not blur distinctions of basing on evidence, teachers not to state religious ideas as true
    8.4. The Constitution gives the teaching of religious doctrines to parents and not to the State
    8.5. The State makes children attend school, so it must be fair and make schools secular
  9. Replies to the 4 questions that the Consultation Paper asks about all approaches
    9.1. It is unfair that any religious group have State-funded schools
    9.2. The Constitution mandates the State removing religious influence in schools which it funds
    9.3. The legal support for National Schools and the Minister’s power to change how they run
    9.4. Unintended impacts of our approach are not a problem
  10. Additional ideas
    10.1. The value to society of all schools being secular, with no discrimination on admission
    10.2. Constitution and international conventions support secular ethos and no discrimination
    10.3. Misconceptions about National Schools’ legal status, and the real status
  11. Conclusion
    11.1. Changes needed and the power to make changes: the changes are constitutional
    11.2. Reasons for changes: children’s rights to development and to be at home in society

Dear Minister for Education


1.   The Mid-West Humanists submit the following in response to the Consultation Paper on the Role of Denominational Religion in the School Admission Process and Possible Approaches for making Changes.

2.  The Mid-West Humanists are a group of people, not inclined towards religion, who meet and have met each month since early 2008, people who live in the counties of Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary.

3.  Such humanists meet because they live in a society and a state that still have considerable biases towards religion, in spite of the population’s great changes away from their previous strong identification with religion. The strongest mis-match now, and the most serious practical problem for people who have no religion, is with education. Nearly all National Schools (that is, the publicly funded primary schools) are run by Trustees who are clergy of, or otherwise closely identified with, religions. Parents who do not have religion seek to have their child attend a school where the school will not teach to the child (as true) ideas which the parents are quite sure are false – these ideas being religious doctrines. The Constitution, Article 44.2.4, notes “the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”.

4.  Accordingly the Mid-West Humanists comment on the Minister’s 4 or 6 alternative approaches to the role of Denominational Religion in the School Admission Process. The solutions that we suggest here would also help children and parents who have a religion, when that religion’s adherents are a small proportion of the population. The changes would make governing schools and the Department of Education easier, and would reduce the chances of scapegoating and civil disturbance in society.

5.  We note these 4 matters that the Minister and Department, in starting this consultation, tell us –

5.1.   In the Consultation Paper, and in the Minister’s speech on 16 01 2017, the Minister sets the problem as parents not of the religion of the Trustees of the nearby school (the parents have another religion or have no religion) finding that their child receives a lower priority to attend that school than a child living further away from the school (but the child who lives further away DOES belong to the religion of the school’s trustees); and that such parents baptise their child to belong to that religion in order to avoid receiving such lower priority. The Minister says that both the lower priority and the pressure to baptise are not fair to families and parents.

5.2.   Approach 4(2) is the variant of approach 4 that would allow a school to require either the child or the parent(s) to support the ethos of the school (or, respect the ethos, or co-operate with it, or not disrupt it). The Minister and Department have drawn attention to the ethos of schools. To parents who have no religion it looks like the ethos of many or most national schools approves of teaching religious doctrines and teaching ordinary secular learning (language, mathematics, science, history, geography, art, music) with no comment that the secular ideas are things on which most people can agree (because those ideas are open to independent re-examination or verification) while the religious doctrines are not verifiable and open to great doubt. Thus in the ethos of such a school it is reasonable to confuse children’s thinking by not teaching them the difference between ideas that can be verified by evidence and ideas that some people choose to believe without evidence. Such an ethos is not fair to parents or to children who have no religion, or who do not have the religion of the ethos of the school – and the Minister clearly does not approve of such unfair treatment. Accordingly we comment on the ethos of schools.
(The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) have recently published all the submissions that they received about the Religion, Beliefs, and Ethics course that the NCCA planned for schools. Many Roman Catholic priests and bishops, as Trustees or managers of schools, submitted that it is difficult or impossible to give that course in Roman Catholic schools: they wrote that the main function of a Roman Catholic school is to have children develop as Roman Catholics. Thus the ethos of those schools does not see fostering knowledge based on reason or evidence as its main aim, and does not aim to keep clear the difference between that and fostering belief without evidence).

5.3.   In the speech the Minister said that “I believe that children should have the opportunity to understand the differing views of those of differing faiths and of none, and the crucial importance to our community of being able to respect those differences” (introduction, paragraph 6) and “There will never be the resources to allow all parents to enrol their children in State-funded schools reflecting exactly their precise denominational preference” (introduction, paragraph 9). The Minister said that this means “ensuring that regardless of the specific denomination of the school, a context is provided for respect for all faiths and none.” (introduction, paragraph 10).

5.4.   The Minister’s speech and the consultation paper quote from the Constitution of Ireland, and mention some of its consequences.
1. Article 42.1  “…the primary and natural educator of the child is the family…” (Speech, Introduction, paragraph 5; the Minister said “Parents are…”).
2. Article 44.2.4  “Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations-” (in Approach 4(3), last paragraph). The paper omits the remainder of the Art.44.2.4 “nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.” – though the last paragraph of the Speech’s introduction refers to this without quoting it.
3. The Supreme Court has interpreted Article 44.2.5 “Every religious denomination shall have the right to…..maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes” so that these purposes include operating schools (Speech, Approach 4, paragraph 5). This might not amount to operating schools with a right that the State or the people’s tax pay to run the religious denominations’ schools.
4. Balancing competing rights of children, parents, and religious organisations (Speech, Possible Approaches, paragraph 6).

6.  The Mid-West Humanists’ view on Ireland’s National (primary) schools, that arise from the Consultation about Admission to schools, follows these principles.

6.1.   The Mid-West Humanists seek a society that is fair to all people. This includes people doing as much as they can, and freedom to do that, as long as they do not infringe the rights of any other person(s). Institutions exist only to help people, and there is no sense in a right for any institution. There is sense in rights for people to create, operate, and modify institutions (with the same limit of not infringing any person’s rights).

6.2.   Children have a right to develop into adults, and a right that no person interfere with such rights. The Mid-West Humanists point to 2 rights.
1.   A child has a right to develop intellectually. Children ask questions when they do not understand, and when they notice a disparity or contradiction between several things that they have heard. Children have a right to receive answers that explain the disparity as much as possible, and not to receive answers that blur the difference or the problem. A school curriculum that teaches secular learning (language, mathematics, science, history, geography, art, music) and also teaches religious doctrines or ideas, without telling the children that these are different kinds of ideas, infringes children’s right to full intellectual development.
2.   A child has a right while still a child, and the same right when she or he is adult, to understand as much as possible about the different people among whom they live, and about the culture and the sub-cultures of the society in which they live. Schools that are divided by one aspect of culture, so that children do not meet in school children of all these types and cultures or sub-cultures, infringe this right of a child. Religion is the commonest aspect of culture by which children are segregated, but there is also segregation by wealth or social class, and by sex.

7.  The Mid-West Humanists’ view on the Minister’s and Department’s 4 or 6 suggested approaches on admissions to schools is as follows.

7.1.   The 4 or 6 approaches in the Consultation Paper are all unreasonable. All except 4(1) would continue discrimination on admission against children from parents with no religion or with any religion other than Roman Catholic Christian, which the Minister and the consultation paper say is not fair. All approaches including 4(1) contravene the aims of the Minister  “that children should have the opportunity to understand the differing views of those of differing faiths and of none, and the crucial importance to our community of being able to respect those differences”, and “ensuring that regardless of the specific denomination of the school, a context is provided for respect for all faiths and none.”

7.2.   Approaches 1, 2, 3, and 4(3) all create practical problems. Approach 1 Catchment Areas would need each school to have a catchment area. The paper and the speech say that there would be large administrative problems creating these areas, changing them in response to changes in population, and in the struggle between (a) most parents and the Department and (b) some schools and some parents who could seek to have the areas fit their needs. Approach 2 Nearest School would extend the Department’s present problems over who receives free school transport (where parents can now choose a school further than the nearest, if they forego free transport) to all pupils. Approach 3 Quotas would need frequent attention to the quotas and to changing them, to avoid a school using the quota to treat admissions contrary to the Department’s principles. There will be similar struggles over what counts as a minority religion. Approach 4(3) Reserving Some Places looks as if it will create similar problems to Approach 3.

7.3.   Approach 4(2) Support the school’s Ethos appears to prohibit discrimination on the religion ground on admission. However some parents not of the religion of the school’s trustees will choose not to accept the condition of agreeing to support, respect, or co-operate with, or not disrupt the school’s ethos. A child who accepts this promise (or whose parent accepts it) will attend the school and will there suffer the loss of his or her right to clarity from adults between secular verifiable learning and ideas that people believe without evidence. Pressure to agree support, respect, or co-operation for or with the ethos is exactly the same as pressure to baptise the child under the present administration and law, and the Minister and the paper say that this is unfair.

7.4.   Approach 4(1) Outright prohibition of discrimination/ Repeal Equal Status Act 2000 section 7.3(c) would do as the paper describes, but it would continue to infringe the right of a child to clarity from adults between secular verifiable learning and ideas that people believe without evidence. Further, not repealing Section 7.3(c) for private schools would allow children to go to school with only one or a few of the sub-cultures of the people among whom they live and will live, and would remove the child’s right and “opportunity to understand the differing views of those of differing faiths and of none, and the crucial importance to our community of being able to respect those differences” which the Minister has said our State should achieve.

8.   The Mid-West Humanists’ view on what the Oireachtas and Government should do on admissions to schools is as follows. We explain what should be changed in the process of admission to schools; and also in schools’ ethos (because the Consultation Paper and the Minister have put ethos in their Approaches).

8.1   Section 7.3(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 should be repealed. The Mid-West Humanists have previously told the Minister for Education in 2014 that the State should allow private schools, but that the State must still regulate them so that children who attend there receive the education that the Constitution guarantees. The Department must not allow a school to limit the social mix of children there, as that would infringe a child’s right to grow up understanding the variety of people and variety of cultures among whom they live. That is, Section 7.3(c) should not be kept for private schools either.

8.2   The Minister in his speech wants every child to get to understand the differing views of those people of differing religions and of no religion, and to respect differences. In order for all the children at a school to understand these different views, they must hear them presented in the same manner. The doctrines of different religions state at least in some part that the doctrines of other religions are not correct. In order to present the features and the doctrines of several religions, and the view of having no religion, with equal respect, the teachers must not state that any of the religious ideas are true (that is not to say that the teacher should state that they are untrue). Further, as the several religions that the teacher will describe will at least in part be the set of religions of the children in the class, this can be fair to the children only if teachers give this class to all the children in the class together: the children should never see a teacher treating one religion or its doctrines as more important than another. A class of children should not be segregated into subgroups for the class about religion. That is, religion as a subject taught to all children together must be objective and pluralistic, as in the Toledo Guiding principles.

8.3.  Every child has a right to full intellectual development, and a right that adults in state-controlled authority (teachers) not confuse them over the clear difference between knowledge that has been verified by evidence or reason (or is open to testing) and ideas that some people believe without evidence. Teachers therefore must make clear to pupils that any religious ideas that they describe to the pupils are not verified, and some of them are not verifiable (again, this is not to require that teachers state that they are false).

8.4.   Teaching religious doctrines with the intention that children will believe them is one of the rights of parents in the Constitution, Article 42.1. The State’s duty to require that children receive a minimum of education in Article 42.3.2 does not include religious education. This means that to teach religious ideas to a child, intending that the child will believe, is for parents. A school that receives public money could allow such classes on its premises, but only if parents organise them, and not within the normal school day. A school that allowed such classes must be fair to all parents who organise different classes.

8.5.   The Irish State has followed its obligation under Article 42.3.2 and makes children attend school. Although parents think about to what school they will send their child, in large portions of the country they have no choice: there is only one school within a reasonable distance. As the State forces children to go to school, and will punish their parents if they do not send them, the State must ensure that all schools are reasonable and fair to all children. The Minister wants to do this. In order to be fair to children who have no religion, or a religion different from that of the trustees of the school, the ethos of a National school must not be tied to one religion – or, indeed to any set of several religions either.


9.  Questions that the Consultation Paper asks about all approaches. The Mid-West Humanists answer these questions about the approach that we have proposed.

9.1.   Impacts on minority religions.  There is a problem with Approaches 3 and 4(3) as to what proportion of the population of Ireland is large enough for the Department of Education to have schools connected with that minority. The Minister said “There will never be the resources to allow all parents to enrol their children in State-funded schools reflecting exactly their precise denominational preference”. Accordingly a system of such schools is unfair to nearly all religious groups (if those groups wanted a school tied to their religion), because their numbers are too small. Therefore it is unfair discrimination if a religious group, or some small number of religious groups, have schools tied to them. The largest such group (Roman Catholic Christian) was once nearly all the people of the State, but now is heading for half, and may become less than half (see Paragraph 10.1). Children at any school tied to a religion grow up segregated from other children with different ideas, cultures, and religions. This schooling infringes the child’s right to come to know the people and the society in which they live. The state should change all schools to have a secular ethos, as well as open to all children with no discrimination on entry.

9.2.   Constitutional limits on making changes in the Education System. The State has often told us that the State is obliged to buttress religion, in order to let religious organisations do what Article 44.2.5 promises to them. The case in which the Supreme Court stated this was about the employment and disciplining of a lecturer in the university college (St Patrick’s College, as it was then) in Maynooth. The part of the college that is or was a pontifical university and a seminary to train priests removed the lecturer on grounds connected with teaching trainee priests. Under a contract with a secular college, with some academic freedom, he could not have been dismissed; but in the seminary the employer (the Irish Roman Catholic bishops) could remove him for teaching incorrect doctrine or for another matter relevant to training priests. The case was not about schools for children. The Supreme Court has separately said that the “religious and charitable purposes”, which Article 44.2.5 promises religious denominations that they can pursue, include operating schools. However it may be that this right not to be prevented from operating primary and secondary schools does not tie the State and taxpayers to pay for those schools. Since that case, we have added Article 42A to the Constitution and it states that children have rights. A child’s right not to have trusted adults blur the distinction between ideas supported by reason and evidence and other ideas that are not so supported is likely to be stronger than the right of any institution. Further, the second half of Article 44.2.4 gives the “right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school”. This makes Section 7.3(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 either unconstitutional or else of no force on schools that receive public money (in the second version it would apply as it states to private schools that receive absolutely no public money).

9.3.   Impact on management and administration of the 3200 national schools. We consider that it is in the power of the Minister for Education to make Rules for National Schools. The legal support is in the lease of each National School. These leases have 3 parties.
The first party owns land and gives it for a penny per year rent, provided that the land is used solely for a National School. The leases’ terms vary: 99 years and 3 lifetimes are common.
The second party are the Trustees, who agree to run the school and follow the Rules by the Minister.
Trustees have been nearly all clergy of the various religions. (Trustees are often called patrons).
The religion of the clergy is apparent on the lease only by their titles and the styles of title in the different religions, and the leases do not state that the school runs in any way connected with any religion.
The third party is the Minister for Education (originally, the Commissioners for National Education), who pays the salaries and some maintenance costs, and sets Rules and sends inspectors.
All schools received 2/3 of the cost of building the school from the State, and some received more.
If the Trustees completely ceased running a National School on the land, they have to repay to the Minister the 2/3 of the cost of building the school that the Minister (originally, the Commissioners for National Education) had provided at the start.
The Trustees agree to follow the rules of the Minister, so the Minister can change the Rules for National Schools so that all educational instruction is given in a secular manner.

9.4.   Unintended impacts on other goals in Education. The Mid-West Humanists’ suggested changes to the admission rules and to the ethos of schools would result in every National school having the same secular ethos, and so leave little scope for manipulation. We have not seen a need for clearly designated catchment areas as part of changed admission rules. The segregation by income and social class has as much bad effect on children becoming adults with a restricted view of the variety in society as does segregation by religion. We oppose this also. Division by sex should cease immediately also. The changes we propose don’t look likely to make segregation by things other than religion any worse. Perhaps some years with schools not dividing by religion may let more people become comfortable with schools with mixtures of children more generally. We don’t think our plan would cause trouble for school transport or Gaelscoileanna.


10.  Additional ideas

10.1.   The value to society of all schools being secular in ethos, and accepting children with no discrimination. The group of people who are Roman Catholic and who also want schools tied to that church has reduced, and may be barely over half the population now (this is less than the fraction of the population who say they have Roman Catholic religion – a substantial fraction of Roman Catholics say they do not favour schools tied to religions, and some send their children to Educate Together schools). Within a few years they will be less than half. The smaller religious groups, to which some schools are tied, do not have such schools in all major towns, let alone villages. The parents in such groups are likely to send their children to the schools that are not tied to any religion and that teach religion in the objective pluralistic method described in our paragraph 8.2. If the Department of Education keeps a large number of schools with an ethos tied to the Roman Catholic church, nearly all schools will be either Roman Catholic or non-denominational. The children who pass their school years in the schools where all types attend will have a fairly cosmopolitan vision of the society in which they live: they will not too often meet as adults people who are hugely different from all the types they met at school, and if they meet one they will engage with the new person without surprise or shock as they have met many types before. In contrast the children who spent the same years in a Roman Catholic school will know little of the varied type of people who live around them. They may know that they are a different set, as they will know about the other schools. After seeing some other people as different, if you also do not meet them much, at times people come to see those other people as inferior or as a threat. When there is some difficulty in society, it is then easier to treat the unknown group (whom you count inferior) as a scapegoat for the present problems. This has led to civil strife, including within Ireland; and, in the worst cases in the world, it has led to war and genocide. It is best for a society to make the consciousness of division into groups as small as possible. It is not likely that a society can abolish such group consciousness, but it can reduce it. Therefore, the Department should not move towards a large set of schools that are secular (Educate Together, and similar) and a large set of schools that have children of only one religion. The Department should make all schools secular.

10.2.   Constitution and International Conventions support the secular system and admission with no discrimination. Judgements by the Supreme Court that suggest that the State must be careful about taking away power from religions and religious organisations get a lot of public attention. Successive governments have supported this for decades. They have not published the Attorney General’s advice that they say tells them this. Many people and organisations that are secular have expressed doubts about this advice and have suggested that the Government publish this advice. In the opposite direction, the Secretary-General of the Department of Education said to the annual meeting of the Catholic Primary School Managers’ Association in March 2015 that for the moment the Deeds of Variation could not be applied to change the Leases of National schools because of constitutional difficulties. We see the most likely article as 44.2.4, the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. At present the integration of religious ideas with secular education is contrary to the second half of Article 44.2.4. It would be wise for the Department to change the teaching curriculum to avoid such a constitutional case. Such a case would involve tax that people pay being spent on legal fees instead of useful services for people. The bar to such a case is the heretofore reluctance of all parents, whose child has not been treated as in Article 44.2.4, to make life awful for the child by running a legal case. Such parents try to find a better school for the child rather than take a legal case. But the parent who will take a legal case may come soon. The European and United Nations conventions on human rights also require states to provide secular education without discrimination, and the United Nations have told Ireland many times that they must provide this.

10.3.   National Schools’ real legal status. Most people think that churches gave land that they owned, on which to build national schools; and that churches paid to build them also. Owners of large portions of land gave land under long leases, from the 1830s onwards. At least 2/3 of the cost of buildings came from the State. The other 1/3 cost was “raised locally”, the original documents say. In some cases the landowner contributed some or all of this. In some cases, church organisations paid the 1/3 of the building cost. The Commissioners for National Education sometimes paid more than 2/3 of the building cost. Further, the initiative to have State-funded primary schools came from the State. It was not the interest and dedication of clergy. But the most important feature of the leases of National schools is that the Trustees must run the school by the system of National Education, and that the Minister sets the Rules. Ministers for Education have seemed reluctant to change these, and clergy connected with running schools have spoken in public as if they have some influence to stop the Minister changing the Rules. It is the Minister who is in control.


11.  Conclusion.

11.1.   Changes needed, and the power to make the changes. The Mid-West Humanists submit their views to the Minister and Department of Education, to change the rules for admissions to National schools, and, because of linked matters and consequential matters in the Consultation Paper and the Minister’s speech about that, to also change the ethos of National schools to entirely secular. We suggest that the admission with no discrimination is in the power of the Oireachtas, and that it is wise to remove Section 7.3(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 very soon, because it is contrary to the second half of Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution, and a legal case against the State is a waste of our money. We show how the secular ethos of National schools is entirely within the power of the Minister to re-create, as the National school leases give power to the Minister (3rd party to the lease) to make such Rules, and the System of National Education as described in the Leases requires that any religious instruction be separate from secular education.

11.2.   Reasons for the changes. Children have rights and the changes would restore their rights to know the society in which they grow up, so that they feel at home there, and the changes would restore their rights to intellectual development and not to be confused between knowledge that is open to verification and what some people believe with no evidence. The changed system will have only one type of primary school; and so questions about how many of each of several types of school will no longer occupy the Department; and society will be easier to keep at peace.


Peter O’Hara, for Mid-West Humanists.



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