As appeared in Letters – Kerryman – 7 September, 2011 edition

In April last, Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn announced his intention to facilitate the reduction of National Schools, operating under Catholic patronage, from 90% to 50%. Understandably, many Catholics may feel unsure about such a development. The vast majority of us, Catholics and non Catholics alike, went to Catholic schools and again, for the majority of us, it was a positive experience. Today, we remain for the most part, Catholic and may be concerned that our children will not receive the grounding in our faith that we did, if the schools are removed from the Catholic Church’s control. We may even fear that schools will become godless institutions in this race to secularism.

These are legitimate questions, especially as we do not know how this process of divestment is going to proceed. I would however suggest, that a greater understanding of the aims of secularisation would go a great deal of the way in allaying any fears that Catholic parents may have. Secularism is not an attempt to remove god from the classroom, it is instead the creation of shared space for all faiths and those without faith.

National Schools are more than arenas for the teaching of multiplication tables and reading. A National School is both a self-contained community and that place which teaches us about the larger community. Until recently we were one large community. We were Catholic and Irish. There may have been divisions between town and country, Cork and Kerry, but we were all Catholic and Irish. It was natural then, for the Catholic Church to be the educator of our youngest children. This they did very successfully, contributing greatly to the production of well-educated Catholic Irish.

Things are now different now. Ireland is different. Our Irish community is now a community of multiple parts. We are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, agnostic and atheist. We are many colours, many languages and we are many aspirations. We are an Irish community of many communities and this brings with it new challenges. The biggest challenge being, how to ensure that this diversity of Irishness becomes the wonderfully positive thing that it can be.

If this inclusiveness is deemed a worthy aspiration, then the process must begin in National Schools. Children this young are incredibly open to the messages we adults transmit. How we behave is the biggest teaching tool there is. Children will model themselves on our behaviour. If we create environments where difference is investigated, lauded and embraced then we will have begun the process of building a future Ireland today. The alternative is to choose exclusion; the couple of non Catholic children sitting in the hallway during religious instruction.

This inclusiveness and diversity can include faith, indeed it can celebrate it. Our children will grow up understanding the many faiths and non, that contribute to our Irish identity. They will become as familiar with Moslem ritual as they are with evolution and the importance of Easter. They can and will know more than us and they will become the Irish community of communities. As for the teaching of the minutiae of whatever faith we wish for our children? Let us remember that our schools lay idle every evening and every weekend. Imam, Rabbi, Priest or philosopher, whoever you wish to instruct your child, should be given access to these buildings. Let us allow our children become more Irish and more Catholic, but let us allow them know that one need not be Catholic to be Irish.

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