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2. Introduction

In 2002 the author of this report was a member of a National School Board of Management. During his time on the Board, the Board of Management introduced a new admissions policy whch allowed for the exclusion from the school of children who were not baptised Catholics. This seems to have been the first time in the 157 years since the school was founded in 1845 that children were excluded on the basis of their religion. The school, as was commonly the case, was founded in the mid 1800s by a local Protestant family (the local landlord), and was given by them around 1900 into the management of the local Catholic clergy. The school was moved and rebuilt in 1940 by the same Protestant family. The school, although primarily funded by Protestants as a National School, is today under the control of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin.

The recent introduction of a “Catholics First” admissions policy, under the instruction of the Archbishop of Dublin, was surprising, given the public utterances of the Catholic authorities in recent years espousing support for inclusivity, and respect for diversity.

There is general lack of legislation relating to education in general. From the 1996 Constitutional Review Group Report:

“Referring to this general lack of legislation in the case O’Callaghan v Meath VEC in November 1990 in the High Court, Costello J stated: It is a remarkable feature of the Irish system of education that the administration by the Department of Education is largely uncontrolled by statute or statutory instruments and that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rules and regulations, memoranda, circulars and decisions are issued and made by the Department and the Minister (dealing sometimes with the most important aspects of educational policy) not under any statutory power but merely as administrative measures. These measures are not of course illegal. But they have no statutory force, and the sanction which ensures compliance with them is not a legal one but the undeclared understanding that the Department will withhold financial assistance in the event of non-compliance.”

Laws relating to National Schools are as follows:

  1. The Irish Constitution of 1937.

Subsidiary to the Constitution is legislation:

  1. The Stanley Letter of 1831 which remains the legal basis of the National Schools System.
  2. The Education Act 1998
  3. Equal Status Act 2000
  4. International and European legislation

Subsidiary to the Constitution and legislation are statutary instruments and departmental circulars such as

  1. The Rules for National Schools
  2. Regular Circulars from the Department of Education.
  3. The Deed of Variation which tries, in retrospect, to change the lease of National Schools (but seems to be illegal and therefore void). This is not dealt with in this report, as the Deeds are not readily available to the public. The Minister for Education should formally repudiate any such deeds already signed.

There are primary schools in Ireland which are not National Schools and are not subject to the restrictions specific to National Schools. This was much better understood in the 19th century and early 20th century. A report was commissioned by the government in 1870 (the Powis Commission Report) to look into the National Education System. The following is a small extract “That the progress of the children in the National Schools of Ireland is very much less than it ought to be. That in Church Education schools, non-National Convent schools, and Christian Brothers’ schools, the result is not very different.” These private faith primary schools (not National Schools), but in very small numbers (Willow Park in Blackrock is an example). Private primary schools would commonly be attached to private secondary schools. Unlike in the secondary sector, private primary schools receive no funding (nor any teachers’ salaries) from the State.

National Schools are in existence to provide primary education to all of the children of the State – specifically regardless of their religion. The “National” designation, which exists in no other country specifically relates to children of all religions being taught together in the same school. There are no “National Schools” in England, France, Germany, USA or anywhere else. The National School sytem is unique to Ireland. There was a determination by the State, a determination that continued right through Independence up to 1965, that the National School system would not exacerbate the religious divisions which have plagued Ireland. There is confusion in the public mind between “National” and “primary” (they are not the same) in the school system – this confusion should be removed. All National Schools are primary schools – however there are private faith primary schools which are not National Schools.

To get a flavour of what it means to be a National school – again from recommendations of the Powis Commission of 1870.

32. That all schools open for instruction of the poor, under proper management, may receive aid from the National Board on condition:………

id) Of being such as all children can frequent without interference with their religious belief.

42. That in places where there is only one school, religious instruction shall be confined to fixed hours.

(a) No child registered as a Protestant shall be present when religious instruction is given by a Roman Catholic. No child registered as a Roman Catholic shall be present when religious instruction is given by a person who is not a Roman Catholic.

(b) No child shall be allowed to join in, or to be present at, any religious observances to which the child’s parents or guardians may object.

(c) The school-books shall be such as have been allowed by the Commissioners of National Education for use in a mixed school.

(d) No religious emblems should be exhibited during school hours.

The National School system expanded rapidly through the 19th century “by 1900, there were over eight and a half thousand national schools in the country attended by half a million pupils.” Most of the National Schools in existence today were presumably in existence by the end of the 19th century. Today, the National Schools system is dominated by the Catholic Church. As of 2007, the following are the numbers of National Schools, listed by patronage:

Catholic 3032 92.4%
Church of Ireland 183 5.6%
Multi-denominational 40 1.2%
Presbyterian 14 0.4%
Inter-denominational 5 0.2%
Muslim 2 0.1%
Methodist 1
Jewish 1
Jehovah’s Witnesses 1
Quaker 1

Given that the schools under Catholic patronage would normally be much larger than those under other patronages, it is likely that the National Schools under Catholic patronage cater for 98% or 99% of the children going to National Schools. The Department of Education is presently compiling details on the patronage of all National Schools – this will hopefully be available in 2011.

Ireland is a country divided by religion – misunderstanding and hatred have been endemic for four hundred years up to very recent times. The National School system was designed to address this religious divide. It is imperative that the State takes back control of National Schools. The existing legislation empowers the State to override the wishes of the religious denominations, and empowers the State to insist that there be no religious discrimination on entry to National Schools. Existing legislation empowers the State to ensure that religious divisions are not allowed or promoted in National Schools. However, the regulatory authorities in Ireland have shown a complete lack of will to use their powers to confront the religious denominations, and the Catholic Church in particular. This situation should be changed.

This report deals primarily with the legal position under the Constitution and other legislation. It must be kept in mind that all written law is “what a reasonable person” would believe it to be – not what a barrister or professor of English might think. If the State is to make a decision based on a legal opinion, there should be public discussion of such opinion, until the public can come to an informed understanding of the issue – such informed public understanding might inform the actions of the State.

Virtually all religious indoctrination by the Catholic Church is done in National Schools, including the important occasions of First Confession, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation. This report does not envisage a change in the situation for the Catholic population, rather that children of other religions and none should see a change – a change back to the schools and education that was always envisaged by the founders of the National Schools – where children of all religions received the secular and moral education together, with separate religious indoctrination, all in the same school – the National School.

We have entered a new era in the evolution of our society. Like many others ours is becoming a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-lingual society. It is no exaggeration to claim that the very nature of what it is to be Irish is being redefined before our very eyes. If we do not steer these changes, what will emerge will be a new society which is unlikely to serve the needs of its citizens. The building and development of a society always occurs through education. This starts formally with the education of our youngest citizens in our National Schools. Mutual respect and a willingness by a majority to protect the rights of minorities is one of the marks of a civilised society, which, after all, is what we aspire to. The founders of the National School system made the best effort they could for their times to promote religious understanding – it is now up to us, 180 years later, to ensure their goals are maintained and hopefully improved.

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