Separate but equal? Schools and the politics of religion and diversity in the Republic of Ireland focuses on the historical and current place of religion in the Irish education system from the perspective of children’s rights and citizenship. It offers a critical analysis of the political, cultural and social forces that have perpetuated the patronage system, looks at the ways in which the denominational model has been adapted to increased religious and cultural diversity in Irish society and shows that recent changes have failed to address persistent discrimination and the absence of respect for freedom of conscience. It relates current debates on the denominational system and the role of the State in education to Irish political thought and conceptions of national identity in Ireland, showing the ways in which such debates reflect a tension between nationalist-communitarian and republican political outlooks. There have been efforts towards accommodation and against instances of discrimination within the system, but Irish educational structures still privilege communal and private interests and hierarchies over equal rights, either in the name of a de facto ‘majority’ right to religious domination or by virtue of a deeply flawed and limited view of ‘parental choice’.
The introduction presents the Republic of Ireland as a case study in the international debate on the place of religion in schools and on the relationship between religion, cultural identity and citizenship in state-funded education systems. It focuses on the specificities of the Irish case (a largely denominational and private system) and on the international scope of such a study (Ireland as both a postcolonial and de facto post-imperial country, issues of civic or ethnic citizenship, multicultural or intercultural perspectives etc.). The choice of a democratic perspective based first and foremost on the rights of children as individual human beings (and not only as members of families or communities) is explained and justified within the context of previous research on the subject in Ireland and elsewhere. The introduction also offers a more general critical analysis of previous writings on the subject of religion and schools in the Irish State, drawing a distinction between Catholic viewpoints and democratic perspectives and questioning the relevance of distinctions made between local and cosmopolitan academic perspectives.
Chapter 1 examines the influence and legacy of Gaelic-Catholic cultural nationalism on the Irish education system, showing that its main characteristics (Church control and denominational structures, patronage system, religious segregation, importance of religion in educational aims and contents up to the 1971 curriculum) reflect both 19th c. developments and the Irish Free State’s Catholic-cultural nationalism (post-independence education policies, 1937 Constitution, ‘fabricated cultural homogeneity’). It also shows that, contrary to popular belief, the denominational nature of the system itself and the ‘legality’ of religious discrimination within the system only date back to changes introduced in official education policy documents in the 1960s.
Chapter 2 gives an insight into the main social transformations in the Republic of Ireland since the 1960s and the consequences of these developments for the place of religion in contemporary society and in the dominant representations of Irish national identity, within the political sphere in particular. These transformations include the on-going process of relative secularisation, along with a wider sociocultural and religious diversification that was accelerated by significant levels of immigration in the 1990s and 2000s. These changes have sparked a public debate on the place of the Christian tradition and identity in the Irish public sphere and on the Irish State as a Christian nation (with communitarian undertones) or as a republican nation.
Chapter 4 examines how general policy orientations were translated into school curricula in the late 1990s and 2000s with regard to cultural and religious matters. It analyses the ambivalent message of the 1999 curriculum, between a celebration of cultural pluralism and the assertion of a kind of ‘Irish majority identity’, along with the Irish State’s continued promotion of religious identity in primary school. It shows that new contents and approaches in history and education for citizenship have been marked by a pluralist ambition (even egalitarian in the case of Civic, Social and Political Education), in contrast with religious education syllabuses which have largely remained a (modernised) vehicle of Christian catechism in the vast majority of schools, with some efforts towards a more open approach at secondary level. The pedagogical project of intercultural education, which is now meant to permeate all school content in theory (in accordance with the aim of ‘integrated teaching’), clashes directly both with religious instruction as it remains taught in primary schools (with religious values or ethos also meant to permeate school life in denominational schools) and with the segregated nature of the school system.
Chapter 6 discusses current structural trends in the education system from the perspective of inclusion, civic and social equality, looking at the diversification of school types and the involvement of private interests and their consequences in terms of school segregation, continuing discrimination and the issue of democratic legitimacy in the whole system. Until now the Irish State has worked to preserve legal forms of discrimination through exemptions to equality legislation, ultimately subordinating the rights of all individual members of the school community to those of particular groups (mainly religious bodies) acting as private patrons, with the exception of the Education and Training Boards. The human rights of children, including the right to freedom of conscience, have been ignored by the Irish State, despite calls from various United Nations Committees and from local groups to eliminate all discrimination in admission policies and within schools. Competing understandings of the notion of community (cultural/religious vs local) along with the market-based idea of parental choice, have contributed to maintaining school segregation along religious, social and even indirectly ‘racial’ lines, going against the idea of a local common school for all children upheld notably by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation.
Chapter 5 analyses structural developments and the place of religion in the current Irish education system. It also gives an overview of contemporary debates on the denominational and segregated nature of the system. Despite significant religious decline (both in terms of numbers and social influence), the Catholic Church has managed to retain control over the vast majority of Irish schools. While it is now prepared to accept the transfer of some schools to other patrons, it has in the main tried to maintain its influence, developing a discourse of inclusiveness. Teacher and parent organisations and other educational actors have been voices for change (with public opinion polls also showing support for significant change), in contrast to the political mainstream. Even if there have been differences of political inflexion, with an attempt since 2010 at encouraging a diversification of patrons in the name of ‘parental choice’, the Irish State has kept to its historical role as funder of schools managed by private patrons, the current result being a perpetuation of the system along with a relative increase in the number of Educate Together schools especially, raising the issue of a new form of segregation.
Drawing on the work of sociologists of education and law specialists, chapter 7 highlights forms of discrimination and inequality inherent to the denominational nature of the education system, despite the efforts made by many school heads and teachers to welcome children from different cultural and religious backgrounds, in line with the discourse of inclusiveness of most school patrons. The concept of school ethos has been used in the Irish context to legitimise the transmission of the particular sets of cultural and moral values of patrons in their respective schools, with problematic consequences in terms of respect for the freedom of conscience and religion of both adults and children in the school community, and it has helped perpetuate the segregated school system. The chapter engages with the question of the ethical and civic role of schools, the idea of transmitting specific communal moral codes being contrasted with that of nurturing children’s autonomy of thought (notably through philosophy) and a human rights-based morality within a pluralist, democratic society. The particular cases of the new Community National Schools and Educate Together schools with their democratic value-base are examined briefly, with a focus on the Educate Together organisation’s paradoxical outlook.
Chapter 3 examines developments in Irish education policy generally over the past forty years and how they have related to social, cultural and religious diversity and inequalities. It looks at state views of the aim of school education and the shift from Gaelic-Catholic nationalism to market-oriented views (Denis O’Sullivan’s ‘mercantile paradigm’) within an international context. It analyses the tentative and limited opening towards more pluralist conceptions of Irish society in general policy documents of the 1990s and the persistence of more traditional Christian views and values. In the 2000s education policy discourses acknowledged some discrimination issues as part of official efforts towards the ‘inclusive society’, but still largely ignored existing issues of religious discrimination. By contrast, from the mid-1990s onwards, teacher organisations and other educational actors called for a national policy that would address both sociocultural and religious inequalities and discrimination. This led to the formulation of a new intercultural discourse in education at both educational and state levels.
Concluding comments focus on the contradiction between new teaching contents and approaches that strive to take into account changing Irish realities and open paths for sociocultural reconfiguration and educational structures inherited from the past that privilege communal (especially religious) interests over equal rights. Political responses based on ‘majority’ rights at different levels are shown to be at odds with republican ideals and democratic values. The dominant political ideology in the Republic of Ireland has contributed to perpetuating communal hierarchies and widespread discrimination in the existing school system, rather than striving towards equal citizenship for all and respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion as a basic individual human right. The conclusion finally places Irish realities and debates within the context of international debates on the place of religion in school, school segregation, secularity, human and cultural rights and intercultural education. It traces the concept of interculturalism back to Canada in particular, showing that there are striking parallels in the field of education policy between the recent history of Quebec and the current Irish situation.