In common with many Irish people, I was astonished to hear today on the news that the Catholic bishops control State-funded secondary schools.
Quite a controversy has sprung up as a result of a parent’s request to have his daughter excused from attending religion classes in a publicly-funded secondary school, Castletroy College in Limerick. Paul Drury approached the principal of the school, Padraig Flanagan, assuming that it would be a formality to make this arrangement but he was refused flatly. Out of the question. Drury’s child was going to be taught religion whether he, his partner or their child liked it.
That was despite the fact that Drury’s right to withdraw his child from religious instruction is guaranteed not only in law but in the constitution. Such piffling details, apparently, carry little weight with Castletroy College. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Flanagan’s predecessor, Martin Wallace, might have handled the matter more deftly.
Contrary to Flanagan’s assurances that his school’s religious education involves learning about all world beliefs, the reality is that the school has, over the years, been routinely visited by an assortment of Catholic priests though not, to the best of my knowledge, any Imams or rabbis. It is possible that Church of Ireland or Presbyterian clergymen have been invited to give classes, though I’m fairly confident no humanists or atheists have ever been permitted to explain their point of view to the students.
You’d imagine, would you not, that a secondary school funded entirely by public money, from the first shovel of concrete to the last penny of staff salary, would be free of religious control? After all, the bishops have for years defended their domination of primary schools by claiming that they provided land for the school (though not the teachers). In the absence of any contribution, real or imagined, you might think that the bishops wouldn’t have the nerve to seek control anyway but if you thought that, you underestimated the bishops’ lust for power and the spineless supine nature of the Irish State.
According to RTE’s education correspondent, when the VEC system was being set up an agreement was reached that bishops would become joint trustees of the schools, whatever that means. You might have thought that an agreement involves some sort of mutual transaction but in this case it seems to have been much simpler. The State agreed to build and fund the schools while the bishops agreed to exert control without contributing anything.
What could be fairer? Not even slightly unconstitutional.
The Castletroy College board of management meets tonight to decide on Paul Drury’s request and, while they deliberate, they might reflect on the fact that Jan O’Sullivan, the Minister for Education has confirmed that parents have the right to remove their children from religious education in schools.
Jan O Sullivan, for her own part, might reflect on the fact that she controls the department that paid for this school’s construction and funds every penny of staff costs, unlike the local Catholic bishop, who funds nothing.
Jan might consider laying down the law to unelected,, unaccountable clerics by pointing out that they have no business telling any parent what their children should study.
And then Jan should dig out that original one-sided agreement between the VECs and the Catholic bishops, hold it in the air and strike a match under it.
In its infinite wisdom, the board of management of Castletroy College has pronounced its judgement.
I promise you I didn’t make this up. This is not satire.
The student will not be required to study religion, but she will have to remain in the classroom while the subject is being taught.
It smells of some priest insisting on the final say. How long can it be before a parent member of the board decides it’s time to stop being intimidated?
Do students who opt out of chemistry classes have to stay in the laboratory?
Do students who don’t paint have to sit at an easel?
Do non-singers have to stand in the choir?
It’s like excusing you from listening to Joe Duffy but keeping Liveline on the radio. Cruel and unusual.
Oddly, all the school needs to do in order to resolve this problem is to schedule religion as an optional subject as required by law. That way, students could attend other classes in the normal manner, but until that happens, the suspicion will linger that a bishop’s wishes are greater than the rule of law in this little republic.
Elsewhere: RTE correspondent Emma O Kelly blog.