Legal barriers will subvert proposed NCCA course on Religions, Beliefs and Ethics

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has launched a consultation about introducing a new course in Irish Primary Schools called Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE). At first glance this seems like a step forward, but on further examination it cannot be, unless there are also legal changes, and the Government is currently saying that it will not introduce these legal changes.

There is a danger that parents and others might welcome this development, without being aware of the legal barriers to schools equality that this document cannot overcome. Only the Schools Equality Pact approach, which legally addresses the four areas of Patronage, Access, Curriculum and Teaching, can realistically ensure an education system that respects everyone’s human rights equally.

Most importantly, the consultation document talks about the importance of respecting human rights, but the NCCA has no legal control over how this new course will be delivered in Primary schools, in an environment where eight United Nations and Council of Europe bodies have already told Ireland that our schools breach the human rights of atheists, secularists and minority faiths.

In 2014 the then Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn in the “Update on Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in Primary Sector, Progress to date and future directions”, stated that:-

“The paper does not set out to be prescriptive and recognises that each school has its own ethos and operates in a particular context. Therefore, it encourages schools to consider their own practices critically and to consult meaningfully with their own communities and stakeholders in formulating policies and developing practice in this area. It also envisages that such policies and practices would evolve and develop as the school and the environment in which it operates continue to change and develop.”

“Each school has its own ethos and operates in a particular context”: those are the key words here. The Department of Education and the NCCA has no control over how each school will deliver the proposed new ERB and Ethics course.

Must uphold ethos of the school

The proposed new course will be delivered within the same legal framework in which all schools are obliged to uphold the ethos of the school as determined by the Patron, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding (Section 15 – 2 (b) Education Act 1998).

The course will also be delivered in accordance with Rule 68, which integrates the school’s religious ethos throughout the entire curriculum, and in a legal framework where the Primary School Curriculum seeks to bring all children to a knowledge of god.

In the Louise O’Keeffe case at the European Court the Irish State were clear that the Rules for National schools were legal rules:-

“135. The 1965 Rules also provided protection. These were legal rules which clearly bound a teacher and a Manager and which clearly set out how to make and pursue a complaint.”

Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools reads:-

“Of all parts of a school curriculum, Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.”

As the vast majority of schools in Ireland are under the patronage of the Catholic Church, any new course about Religions, Beliefs and Ethics will in practice be delivered through the lens of the Catholic Church.

If the new ERB Course is to include ALL children, then it must be delivered in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. This is a General Principle under Article II of Protocol 1 (the Right to Education) of the European Convention. The UN uses the terms neutral and objective.

Given the legal framework in Ireland, and the fact that we have direct experience of a Religious Education course at second level, we have already requested that our right to exempt our children from this course is recognised and guaranteed.

Please see our Submission to the NCCA here.

Respect for our human rights

We cannot see how this course will promote respect for our human rights, given the fact that the NCCA has no power to ensure that schools deliver this course in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner and in accordance with the Toledo Guiding Principles and human rights law.

The NCCA cannot comply with the Recommendation from the Forum of Patronage and Pluralism. The Consultation documents do not state that the proposed course will be delivered in accordance with the Recommendation and the Toledo Guiding Principles.

The Recommendation from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in relation to the proposed course reads as follows:-

“The Advisory Group is of the view that all children have the right to receive education in ERB and Ethics and the State has the responsibility to ensure that this is provided. The Advisory Group requests that the NCCA, with assistance from the partners and mindful of existing programmes, should develop curriculum and teacher guidelines for ERB and Ethics, in line with the Toledo Principles, the RedCo, and the Cambridge Primary Review.

The Advisory Group has a particular concern for those children who do not participate in religious programmes in denominational schools. They may go through their primary schooling without any ERB and ethical education. For these children, the proposed programmes in ERB and Ethics are of central importance. “

The Advisory Group state that they are of the view that ALL children have a right to receive education in ERB and Ethics. At present there is no access to education in ERB and Ethics at either primary or second level for the children of secular parents.

Legislation, policy and curriculum

All recognised schools in Ireland are obliged by the Education Act 1998 to operate in accordance with legislation, policy and curriculum as determined by the Minister for Education & Skills, Section 9 – (b) Education Act 1998).

The legislation, policy and curriculum oblige schools to promote the spiritual development of students (Section 9 – (d) Education Act 1998), while having regard to the Characteristic spirit (ethos) of the school. The vast majority of schools at both primary and second level operate with a specific religious ethos.

One of the key areas of the Primary School Curriculum is to promote the spiritual dimension of life. The concept of spirituality is not defined in the Education Act 1998 and in the Primary School Curriculum it is assumed that it based on a transcendent element within human experience. Spirituality is linked to religious education and developing spiritual and moral values and a knowledge of god.

The Primary School Curriculum states that:

“The spiritual dimension of life expresses itself in a search for truth and in the quest for a transcendent element within human experience. The importance that the curriculum attributes to the child’s spiritual development is expressed through the breadth of learning experiences the curriculum offers, through the inclusion of religious education as one of the areas of the curriculum, and through the child’s engagement with the aesthetic and affective domains of learning.” (Introduction Primary School Curriculum, page 27)

“The spiritual dimension is a fundamental aspect of individual experience, and its religious and cultural expression is an inextricable part of Irish culture and history. Religious education specifically enables the child to develop spiritual and moral values and to come to a knowledge of God.” (Primary School Curriculum Page 58)

The Primary School Curriculum sees spirituality expressed only through religion. It is difficult for us to understand how anybody could believe that atheists believe in a higher power and that their children should be brought to a knowledge of god.

This directly disrespects the inalienable right to respect of atheist and secular parents for their philosophical convictions under Article 42.1 of the Constitution and Article II of Protocol 1 of the European Convention.

The Consultation process launched by the NCCA did not refer to this aspect of the Primary School Curriculum nor did it mention Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools.

This government have no plans to remove Rule 68, amend the Primary School curriculum or Section 15 – 2 (b) of the Education Act 1998. This means that the NCCA have absolutely no control over how the proposed new course is delivered in any school in Ireland.

Letter from NCCA in 2010

In 2010 Atheist Ireland received a letter from the NCCA in response to a complaint regarding the second level Religious Education Course. This course was developed by the NCCA and many children at second level are forced to take it. This course is a breach of human rights, in all schools it is combined with the Patron Programme (religious instruction). The NCCA informed us at the time that:

“However, I should re-state the position that, even if Atheist Ireland thinks that is should be, the NCCA is not responsible for how schools oranise and plan for their own curriculum and the range of subjects they offer. This principle applies not just in Religious Education, but across the full curriculum. These decisions remain a matter for the Board of Management of each school.”

Nothing has changed and the NCCA are still not responsible and will have no control over how schools plan for their own curriculum. Schools can and will combine the proposed ERB and Ethics course with their own faith formation programme, as is already happening in Secondary schools. In the case of the Catholic Church they will combine the ERB and Ethics course with Catholic religious instruction classes (Grow in Love).

The NCCA will not take any care regarding the delivery of the course because it has no legal power to do so, and because it supports promoting the spiritual and moral development of children and bringing them to a knowledge of god.

Atheist Ireland submission to NCCA

Atheist Ireland already made a submission to the NCCA on the proposed course and we will be making another one which we will publish. The Consultation process uses very nice words, and many parents will be forgiven for believing that something is about to change in our education system.

Unfortunately the legal framework has not changed and religious discrimination will be still embedded in our schools. It is also worth pointing out that the Recommendations from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism have been ignored. The Recommendation from the Report from the Irish Human Rights Commission have been ignored as well.

There are now eight Recommendation from the UN and Council of Europe regarding our education system. They have all been ignored as well. The NCCA have absolutely no power to change one single thing, and in fact this proposed course could actually make things more difficult for us.

We will also help parents fill in the questionnaire and can give advice and any assistance needed. Please contact us at


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