The Constantly Shifting Ethos of ETB Schools and Colleges

The Department of Education has told Atheist Ireland that the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, gave incorrect information about the patronage of ETB schools, which we reported on in an article on 10 January. Minister McHugh was answering a parliamentary question on 6 December 2019 from Ruth Coppinger TD.

It is becoming impossible to keep up with the repeated changes in how the State officially describes the ethos of ETB schools. These schools are supposed to be the State-run alternative to the denominational, mostly Catholic, schools that dominate the education system.

But the official ethos of ETB schools and colleges keeps shifting between multi-denominational, denominational, Catholic, and now inter-denominational which means Christian. Meanwhile, in reality, Catholic practices are largely normalised within the life of these schools.

Figures from the Minister

The Department now says that a clerical error resulted in the Minister saying that the 61 ‘designated’ Community Colleges (which have legal agreements with Catholic bodies) are denominational in ethos, and that 80 out of the 82 Community Schools are Catholic (run jointly with Catholic bodies), with the other two being multi-denominational (run jointly with Educate Together).

The Department now says about the 61 ‘designated’ Community Colleges that 55 are inter-denominational, 3 are multi-denominational, and 3 are Catholic. The Department now says about the 82 Community Schools that 78 are inter-denominational and 4 are multi-denominational.

Neither these new figures, nor the figures they replace, are consistent with repeated statements by Ministers for Education, or with Circular Letter 0013/2018, all of which say that ETB Community Colleges and Schools are multi-denominational in ethos. In 2007 the State actually told the Council of Europe that VEC schools and Community Colleges were non-denominational (page 16 GVT/COM/II(2007)001). In 2018 the WRC found that a non designated Community College had a Christian ethos which would put it into the category of inter-denominational not multi-denominational.

If either the denominational, Catholic, or now inter-denominational figures are correct, then any parents who are living in an area where there is only a ‘designated’ ETB Community College, or an ETB Community School, do not have access to even multi-denominational education for their children.

The Internal ETBI Report

Nor is any of this shifting categorisation consistent with an internal ETBI report, published by the Irish Times in October 2019, which vindicated what Atheist Ireland had been saying for years about the reality of the teaching of religion in ETB schools.

Nessa White, ETBI’s general secretary, acknowledged the difficulties the sector faced in defining what is meant by ‘multi-denominational’ in the ETB schools and colleges which have legal agreements with religious bodies.

But the internal ETBI report found that even in many of the 182 ‘non-designated’ ETB Community Colleges, which do not have any such legal agreements, Catholic practices are largely normalised within the life of the school. Many have graduation Masses, symbols from the Catholic faith only, and visits from Catholic religious representatives.

The Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, then clarified that the 61 designated ETB Community Colleges are denominational, and that 80 of the 82 ETB Community Schools are Catholic, contradicting the repeated previous statements that ETB schools are multi-denominational.

Now we have yet another set of figures, saying that most of the 61 Community Colleges are inter-denominational rather than either denominational or multi-denominational, and that most of the 82 Community Schools are inter-denominational rather than Catholic.

The Research “That’s how it works here‘: The place of religion in publicly managed second-level schools in Ireland (O. McCormack, J. O’Flaherty, B. O’Reilly, J. Liston)

The internal ETBI report cited McCormack et al (2108) questioning how the ETB sector can juxtapose ‘inclusion’ as a ‘core dimension of the characteristic spirit for non-designated schools, within a context where one religion is frequently given greater recognition than other (or no) religions.’

The McCormack et al report (‘That’s how it works here’: The place of religion in publicly managed second-level schools in Ireland) stated in its conclusions:

“The findings of the current study highlight, bar a few exceptions, the largely normalised and unquestioned position of Catholic practices within the life of ETB second-level schools. The inclusion of Catholic values and practices within the designated schools involved in the study could be viewed as expected in light of the Model Agreements between patrons and co-trustees. Within non-designated schools no such agreement exists. The fact that little difference was often found between the practices of non-designated schools and their designated counterparts is telling.

While the historical and cultural contexts can explain the reasoning for the largely normalised and unquestioned position of Catholic practices within the life of ETB schools, the religious and demographic contexts in Ireland are changing (O’Flaherty et al., 2018; Liddy et al., 2018; CSO, 2017b). Therefore, practices that were previously viewed as unproblematic now need to be questioned, challenged and changed. What this means for the place of religion in publicly managed schools is unclear. We would argue that non-designated schools being Catholic ‘by default’, without sufficient discussion, reflection and critique, is not acceptable within a more pluralist Ireland.

As public bodies, ETBs have responsibilities in respect of the ‘common good’. These include, for example, unifying a diverse population, preparing students to be citizens in a democratic society, and accepting and reflecting a variety of ‘worldviews, social customs and behaviours’ (Peifer, 2004, p. 2). Publicly managed schools have particular responsibilities in respect of the constitutional commitments to freedom of conscience (Article 44.2.1), non-discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or non-belief (Article 44.2.3) and protecting the right not to attend religious instruction at school. Much in the practice reported here is a potential source of concern in respect of these responsibilities.”

Current Figures from Department

These are the current figures from the Department regarding patronage and ethos in Irish schools and colleges.



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