Educate Together: Elitist or Ethical?

This morning I was doing my usual quick flick through Twitter, seeing if anything (other than the 2016 Olympic Games) would pop up and catch my eye. Usually this never fails, and I came across a nice, big, bold and rash statement from a Castlebar Councillor (full article on his statement):

“I don’t understand that an elitist group or another minority group should expect the taxpayers or the people of Ireland to provide schools, teachers and facilities for small minority groups.”

Woah. Taxpayer euros are going towards an elitist group in modern Ireland? Well I never. “Elitist” makes a few things spring to mind: millionaires, Ferrari owners, high-ranking politicians, ect. Surely such elite people don’t need the Irish taxpayer to fund schools and teachers!

The group in question here is Educate Together. Doesn’t sound like an elitist group, does it?



Before we delve into who they are, take a read through their mission statement:


“Educate Together will be an agent for change in the Irish State Education system seeking to ensure that parents have the choice of an education based on the inclusive intercultural values of respect for difference and justice and equality for all. In Educate Together schools, every child will learn in an inclusive, democratic, co-educational setting that is committed to enabling and supporting each child to achieve their full potential while at the same time preparing them to become caring and active members of a culturally diverse society.”

While I’m not a Professor of English, I think it requires a fair ‘aul stretch of the Irish imagination to brand a group with that mission statement as elitist. Let’s go further into who they are and decide for ourselves.

 

Who are Educate Together:
You can find out all there is to know about Educate Together on their website, but I’ll cover the basics. Essentially, they’re a school system that is run independently of the Irish State, and are not under the control of a religious denomination. Their first primary school opened in 1978, growing to to 77 as of today. In 2014, they opened their first second-level schools. Over 20,000 students attended their nation-wide network of schools in 2015.

So what makes them different to the school down the road from you? For one, they teach what they call the Learn Together curriculum; ethical education is taught instead of religious education, which is taught in primary and second-level schools in Ireland. Their ethical education is divided into:

  • Moral and Spiritual Development
  • Equality and Justice
  • Belief Systems
  • Ethics and the Environment

 

Religion in Irish Schools:
Let’s get a little background on why this is done:

Irish Primary schools had always been under the patronage of religious denominations, who set them up in the years when Ireland didn’t have a national education system. To quote education.ie,

“The vast majority (96%) of primary schools in Ireland are owned and under the patronage of religious denominations and approximately 90% of these schools are owned and under the patronage of the Catholic Church”.
As a result, these primary schools teach religion, and, if it was a Catholic-owned Primary school, that religion was Catholicism.

This had a few effects on the Primary School system. Most notably, schools are allowed, by law, to give priority to new students who are of the same religion as the school. As you can imagine, this has created a lot of tension amongst non-Christian parents. A quick Google search for “Religion in Irish Education” will bring up issues such as:

  • Students not being allowed to opt-out of a schools religious classes
  • Students having to sit in the class while religion is being taught; this is problematic for young children, such as those aged four to five, who have to be told “not to listen to the teacher” for a half our every day.

This remains a problem, despite being addressed by other countries at a United Nations human rights review. In fact, Ireland rejected a recommendation on ending religious discrimination in schools, source: http://www.thejournal.ie/ireland-human-rights-un-review-2761526-May2016/

In fairness, they did make the religious textbooks nice and colourful.

Alive-O-5-illustration

Against that backdrop, we can see how many people wanted to see a new education system brought into Ireland; there were no signs of reform being shown for the current system. Out of this frustration, Educate Together was born.

Educate Together do not, as we saw above, give children of a certain religion priority; they “guarantee equality of access and esteem to children irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background.”

 

What do they teach:
Other than the ethical education discussed above, Educate Together schools teach the same curriculum as all other primary schools.

To be clear, religion is still taught to children in Educate Together schools. The difference is that no one religion is given priority, and no one religion is practiced: primary schools run by the Catholic Church say prayers during the day, practice Communion and Confirmation rites, have visits from priests, ect. Educate Together schools teach the values and beliefs of the world’s six main religions: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Sikhism, as well as addressing Atheism, Agnosticism and Humanism.

 

Elitist? I think not.
Armed with this knowledge, let’s review Mr.Durcan’s original statement:

“I don’t understand that an elitist group or another minority group should expect the taxpayers or the people of Ireland to provide schools, teachers and facilities for small minority groups.”

The two words I have issue with here are elitist and minority. The Wikipedia definition of “elitist” is as follows:

“Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals who form an elite—a select group of people with a certain ancestry, intrinsic quality or worth, high intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes—are those whose influence or authority is greater than that of others; whose views on a matter are to be taken more seriously or carry more weight”.

Hence, Mr.Durcan’s statement is simply not true. Educate Together schools are more inclusive and more multicultural than the other 96% of Primary schools in the country, run by a religious denomination. They have equal status amongst other types of Primary schools, and hence it is not true to say that their “influence or authority is greater than that of others”, nor are their “views on a matter are to be taken more seriously or carry more weight”.

In fact, I would sooner describe a Catholic-run school as elitist, due to their preference for Catholic pupils.

Mr.Durcan says that minority groups want “schools, teachers, and facilities”. Again, this is not true and holds no basis in reality. Educate Together accommodate small minority groups better than the other 96% of Primary schools, but their schools are not exclusively for minority groups. In a statement following Mr.Durcan’s comment, Educate Together stated that, “Far from being an ‘elitist’ group, [the school’s] ethos is based on welcoming children regardless of their social, cultural or religious background and teaching them in a way that minimises discrimination.”

I don’t know Councillor Durcan, but if I were to guess, I’d say he’s a member of the Catholic Church. His comments follow Castlebar County Council’s decision to allow the establishment of an Educate Together school in Castlebar. He goes on to say, referring to the schools as “elitist”, “That’s what people have been saying about it” adding, “I got a tremendous reaction about it today with people saying that I was dead right.” Again, I would guess that these “people” who are saying he’s “dead right” are also Catholic, perhaps with a slight prejudice for other religions, or indeed people who do not practice a religion.
After all, what other reason is there for having dissatisfaction for a group of schools who guarantee equality of access and esteem to children “irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background”?

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