Today, the Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan, has announced changes to the Rules for National Schools. Undoubtedly, these rules need to be updated and a revised, consolidated text produced. The two rules (68 and 69) which deal with religious education should not be dealt with in isolation.
The status of the current Rules for National Schools is unclear. Since their publication in 1965 there have been many hundreds of circulars from the Department of Education and Skills and several legislative Acts, including the Education Act (1998), which directly impact on the governance of schools.
The Catholic ethos of primary schools in Ireland is not based on the Rules for National Schools. As a paper just published by the DES makes clear: “in all primary and post-primary schools, the school’s stated ethos (that is, the values and principles it promotes) is decided by the owners or patrons/trustees of the school and not by central government” (Department of Education and Skills, Advancing School Autonomy in the Irish School System, December 2015, p.19).
The ethos of a school is given expression in multiple ways and it informs all aspects of the life of the school. These include the programme in religious education. The Minister’s announcement concerning rule 68 does not change the teaching of religious education in Catholic schools.
Religious education plays a key role in all faith schools. In Catholic schools religious education is based on a Christian vision of the human person with a clear respect for all people irrespective of faiths. This is expressed in a commitment to learning to engage in interreligious dialogue in age appropriate ways. The current political and social situation in Europe would suggest that religious education, as part of the school curriculum, is more important now than ever before.
Faith schools exist because there are parents who wish to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions. If the ethos of these schools is undermined then the rights of such parents are compromised. We wish to assure parents that the Minister’s announcement does not alter the ethos of Catholic schools and that this ethos will continue to find expression in all aspects of the life of the school.
Catholic primary schools are embedded in parishes and local communities throughout the country. All surveys demonstrate a very high level of parental satisfaction with the service provided by these schools. Some recent comment on them is a caricature of their real contribution to Irish life.
Inspired by Christian faith and love, Catholic schools strive to be caring and inclusive communities. They have adapted to demographic change with significant net migration into Ireland and many of them have led the way in integrating migrants into local communities. They have been leaders in areas such as social inclusion, special needs and traveller education.