Minister confirms that many ETB schools are denominational

UPDATE: The Department of Education has told Atheist Ireland that the Minister for Education gave incorrect information in the response to this parliamentary question. You can read about the updated situation here.

The Minister for Education Joe McHugh has confirmed that a quarter of ETB Community Colleges are denominational (61 out of 243), and that all except two of the Community Schools that the ETBs jointly run are Catholic (80 out of 82). The rest of the ETB Community Colleges are officially multi-denominational (182).

This is despite parents being repeatedly told that ETB schools are the State-run alternative to denominational schools, previous Ministers and Circular Letters from the Department describing ETB schools as multi-denominational and not denominational, and the practice on the ground often being denominational and Catholic.

The figures come in a reply from the Minister to Ruth Coppinger TD, who had asked the number of schools each patron body is a patron of at primary and second level.

  • At primary level, the Catholic Church directly runs 2,740 out of 3,130 schools, or 87.5% of all schools. Most of the rest are run by other religious bodies. There are 91 Educate Together primary schools (2.9%), and 21 ETB primary schools (0.7%).
  • At second level, the Catholic Church directly runs 326 out of 721 schools, or 45.2% of all schools. The ETBs run 182 multi-denominational Community Colleges (25.2%), and 61 denominational Community Colleges (8.5%). The ETBs also jointly run 80 Catholic Community Schools along with the Catholic Church (11.1%).
  • 22 Schools where the Minister for Education is patron are also denominational. This includes 9 primary schools (0.3%), five of which are Catholic and four of which are Protestant. It also includes 13 Comprehensive schools at second level (1.8%) which were involved in the Supreme Court case about payment of chaplains.

Parents and students have been misled too long about the denominational nature of ETB schools. The issue can only be resolved when everybody is open about what is actually happening.

Normalised Catholic practices in ETB schools

In October 2019 the Irish Times published details of an internal ETBI report that vindicated what Atheist Ireland had been saying for years about the teaching of religion in ETB schools. You can read that internal ETBI report here.

The ETBI report said that Catholic practices had been ‘normalised’ in many multi-denominational State schools. It noted that many “non-designated” schools had graduation Masses, symbols from the Catholic faith only, and visits from Catholic religious representatives.

Nessa White, ETBI’s general secretary, acknowledged the difficulties the sector faced in defining what is meant by “multi-denominational” in ETB schools with legal agreements with religious patrons.

But now the Minister for Education has confirmed that the ETB schools that have legal agreements with religious patrons are officially denominational, not multi-denominational. And in any case, even ETB schools that do not have such legal agreements have a Catholic ethos on the ground.

That was the reason that the Department of Education issued the two Circular Letters in 2018 to ETB schools about religious instruction and worship. It was to counter the denominational practice of these ETB schools providing Catholic religious instruction and worship.

Previous Ministerial statements about ETB school status

Here are some examples of previous Ministerial statements describing ETB second-level schools as multi-denominational.

In January 2018, Circular Letter 0013/2018 regarding religious instruction in ETB schools, it stated:

“In establishing Community and VEC schools (now ETB schools) the State set a multi- denominational basis for religious worship and instruction… This circular does not alter that multi-denominational basis by which religious instruction is provided or amend any of the deeds, or legal instruments concerned.”

In May 2018, Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Education whether, to be truly multi-denominational, a school must give equal weight to the background of all students and ensure the majority view is not allowed to dictate the ethos of the school.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton replied:

“ETB schools are multi-denominational schools and as such are required to serve their communities however composed. This includes providing for religious instruction according to the profile of the students who attend the school.”

In October 2017, Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education to clarify the religious ethos of ETB schools, in in view of reports of a de facto Roman Catholic ethos in ETB schools in County Tipperary, which Atheist Ireland had published.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton replied:

“The schools to which the Deputy refers are multi-denominational schools and as such are required to provide for religious instruction according to the profile of the students who attend the school.”

Primary and Second Level Schools by Patron Body

Here are the figures that the Minister gave in his response.


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