When Ireland’s school system was set up in the 1800s, it was designed to be multi-denominational. In reality, it ended up being run entirely by one church – the Catholic Church. Over time, smaller denominations created their own schools. Since the 1970s, an independent NGO called Educate Together has created a number of multi-denominational schools. These changes were slight as the Catholic Church still controls 93 percent of the nearly 3,200 Irish primary schools.
All of them are funded by taxpayers.
In March 2011, the Irish Minister of Education convened a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector to assess the needs and desires of all interested parties regarding the nation’s primary education. The public meetings and written submissions covered a variety of topics, including opening up new schools, the types of curriculum, and what languages should be included. Minister Ruairi Quinn has long wanted to make drastic changes to the Irish educational system, the more radical of which was to wrestle control of the country’s primary education from the Catholic Church.
Minister Quinn’s grand plan has yet to be fully realized, but a major change to the primary curriculum will occur in September 2014. Beginning at age 4, children will receive instruction in atheism, agnosticism, and humanism as part of their ethics and belief systems alongside studies of other religions. The courses will be offered as part of the curriculum in the non-denominational schools and be available online and via apps for those who attend other schools.
Educate Together and Atheist Ireland will develop the curriculum, which will be designed to give children an alternate view of the world and an alternative to what Atheist Ireland describes as a “faith formation first” approach to the teaching of religions.
Instead of religious instruction, as taught in the Catholic run schools, the approximately 16,000 students who attend the Educate Together schools have a section called Learn Together which promotes a “philosophy of education in which no child is considered an outsider; which promotes the fullest development of ability irrespective of gender, class or stereotype and which encapsulates this ethos in a democratic partnership uniquely combining the involvement of parents with the professional role of teachers.”
During this section, attention is given to the various traditions the children’s families have, which include religious identifications. There is currently no segment which discusses atheism or its celebrations. This new program will be designed to fill that gap.
The program will be in line with the Toledo Guiding Principles on teaching about religions and beliefs. These principles are based on human rights and the belief that everyone has a right to an education in which information is conveyed in an “objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.” This means, in the case of teaching religion, it strives for awareness and understanding of the differing beliefs, but does not focus on indoctrination, devotion or otherwise promote – or denigrate – a particular tradition.
This is why the segment will not promote, but teach about, atheism as yet another way people make sense of their world.
The Patronage Forum Report was issued in April of this year. The results of the survey showed that parents overwhelmingly wanted more school choices and a more diverse educational experience for their children. They are currently seeking submissions for implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Group.
In the survey, participants were asked what their preferences were in school curriculum. By an overwhelming majority, the first preference was one that was multi-denominational, like the one offered by Education Together.
Now, with the introduction of the atheism segment, multi-denominational will include those without a deity as well.