We Don’t Need No Education (Part 1)

(Originally Published on Corkstudentnews.com in March 2010)


This was originally written for a purely academic purpose but I felt that it was worth disseminating it among the greater readership, whoever that may be. I have tried my best to adopt the writing to a more non-academic format and hopefully I have been successful.

An Irish “Education”? (Part 1)

The education system in Ireland today is roughly the same type of system that was set up during the foundation of the State; that being the teaching of religion in the class room has always been a prominent feature of Irish education. The religion that was taught in the classroom has always been predominantly of the Catholic ethos. This is due in no small part to the way the education system has been set up. The Catholic Church has had a monopoly on education in Ireland for decades and therefore they decided what was taught and what wasn’t.

Up until recently, this was the complete antithesis to the education system in the United States of America. There the separation of Church and State has been enshrined in the Constitution since the foundation of the country unlike in Ireland where the Church was guaranteed a special place within the Irish Constitution since day one. Over the following paragraphs, and next week or two, I intend to discuss how the education system has been set up in Ireland with special attention given to the religious aspect of it, how it is now changing and I shall also discuss the system in the United States, how it differs and I will briefly mention some of the more current controversies gripping it.

As I have already mentioned, the vast majority of schools in Ireland, in particular primary schools, are effectively under the management of the Catholic Church. This is the way it has been in Ireland for as long as the “Free State” has existed. The Government conceded the education of children to the Church. One reason behind this is that in the early years of the State, the Government could simply not afford to run schools on their own so they passed the responsibility over to the Church who became the patrons. Even all of the primary teaching colleges, apart from one, are owned by Catholic Religious Orders under the Patronage of the Bishop. This in turn has led to some serious problems within the education system over the years. The curriculum has been set up in such a way as to assume belief in the Christian notion of a God. For example, there are religious references in otherwise secular texts for school such as “an English reader textbook, Silver Springs, published by the educational publishers, Fallons, and used by pupils in fourth class, contains 8 texts which are religious”. This is the norm within the education system and it obviously leaves no allowances for a child who may be from a non-denominational background. Although the above is only one example, “the assumptions underlying many of these school textbooks, is that the children reading them share the same religious faith. They also treat matters of faith as factual”.

Belief in the Christian god is assumed and this therefore excludes children who may be of another religious belief or, as I have already mentioned, those who come from a non-denominational family/background. However, the Christian domination of the education system is at odds with guidelines published in “the document which governs the management of primary schools, the Rules for National Schools of the Department of Education, which upholds the “traditional” separation of religious and secular instruction”. While it mentions the “traditional separation”, this is merely lip service and in reality it is a rather fallacious statement. The simple fact is that Christianity effectively permeates throughout the majority of the school system and curriculum.  For example “in the Social and Environmental Studies section of the curriculum…a 1983 Inspector’s Report found that integration with religion, language and art/craft was a regular feature of the teaching of this subject”. Catholic Church has exerted its influence in all facets of the education system over the years.  To put it succinctly, the Patron, i.e. the Church, has the final say on most matters and one example in particular, from 1988, shows this when “in Limerick a problem arose where the School Board would not ratify a decision by the Diocesan Assessors to appoint a Principle Teacher. The matter was voted on three times, with the same results on each occasion. After the third vote, the Chairperson, who was the local Parish Priest, advised the Board to resign en masse, which is what happened. The applicant who was favoured by the Diocesan Assessors was then appointed to the position”. Even when it came to the possible merging of denominational secondary sector schools and the non-denominational vocational sector in 1971, “Catholic Bishops had made it clear to the ASTI that the Catholic character of the schools would have to be retained in an amalgamated situation”.

This has been changing in recent years as Ireland has become more and more multi-cultural and as a result, multi-denominational. In order to address this, a relatively new organisation, Educate Together, has been set up in which the Christian ethos is not main guiding principle of the school system. This is a particularly pertinent point seeing as the largest religious minority in the 2006 census were those who declared themselves of no particular faith. Educate Together promotes the idea of multidenominational schools where religious instruction is given outside of normal class hours. The management of the schools allows parents to organise “doctrinal instruction classes” outside of regular school hours. In place of in class religious instruction there is an “Ethical Education Curriculum” put in its place which is divided into four strands, Moral and Spiritual, Justice and Equality, Belief Systems and Ethics and the Environment. “The aims and objectives of each strand are underpinned by core values such as respect for self, respect for others, respect and knowledge of difference, gender equity, respect for the environment and the rights and responsibility of being a citizen from a local perspective but also on a global level”. Educate Together currently manage 56 National Schools throughout the country. This accounts for roughly 10,000 students who are receiving an education in which their particular denomination is not an issue. The organisation also has plans to open a further 50 national schools over the next 5 years and they also wish to become involved in second level education.

Overall they believe that the education system in general needs to be changed but also with particular attention paid to second level education. As the head of the organisation himself has said, the only aim of the Leaving Certificate is to achieve the maximum amount of points within a narrow set of academic tests. This is something that I have strongly believed in for a number of years. The Leaving Certificate is in no way a measure of intelligence. If it was then by those standards I am rather lacking in higher cognitive abilities. It prepares you for third level education in a rather minimalistic way. You are not taught to think critically or to assess things from an objective point of view. Instead you are made to learn off things verbatim in order to regurgitate it over a series of exams across a number of days. The ludicrousness of this is surely self evident but many people, including those within the Government, do not see this at all.  Once someone has made the leap into third level, a lot, but not all, of what they had previously learned in second level has become redundant and they are forced to unlearn what they previously took as gospel.

While education in Ireland has been and is approached from a Christian perspective, in the United States however, the opposite has generally been the case. This and more will be discussed next week.