End religious discrimination in schools, UN committee tells Ireland

Posted: Fri, 10th Feb 2023

End religious discrimination in schools, UN committee tells Ireland

The National Secular Society has welcomed a United Nations committee's recommendation that Ireland ends faith-based selection in schools.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has urged the Republic of Ireland to "guarantee the right of all children to practice freely their religion or belief" by no longer allowing Irish faith schools to favour children who share their religion.

The recommendations were made in the CRC's concluding observations, published on Tuesday, on the most recent periodic reports of child rights in Ireland.

The CRC called on Ireland to amend laws to "remove exceptions to ensuring a child's right to education in all primary and secondary schools based on religious or 'ethos' grounds".

The Education (Admissions to Schools Act) 2018 ended the use of religious criteria in school admissions in most cases. However, exceptions to this law and the Equal Status Act mean non-Catholic primary schools and all secondary schools can discriminate against children based on religion or belief.

Additionally, the CRC urged Ireland to develop a "time-bound strategy, with adequate resources", to meet its targets for increasing the availability of multidenominational schools by 2030, as well as the availability of nondenominational schools.

Most primary schools in Ireland are run by churches. Ninety per cent are controlled by the Catholic church. Over 50% of secondary schools are run by religious groups.

Multidenominational schools are a newer kind of school in Ireland which aim to promote greater pluralism than single denominational schools. There are only 150 multidenominational primary schools. Ireland has no nondenominational schools.

The CRC also said Ireland should establish statutory guidelines to ensure children have the right not to attend religious classes". Since 2020, all schools which provide religious instruction must have arrangements in place for parents who wish to withdraw their children, with no reduction to the school day. But the Department of Education has not put in place guidelines for schools to deal with opt out requests. Some schools have obstructed parents from implementing their right to opt out their children.

The Committee called for "comprehensive, age-appropriate and evidence-based education on sexual and reproductive health" to be integrated into mandatory school curricula at all levels of education and teacher training. It said Ireland must ensure it includes education on "gender equality, sexual diversity, sexual and reproductive health rights, responsible sexual behaviour and violence prevention".

Schools in Ireland can teach sex education according to their ethos. In 2021 the Irish Bishops' Conference developed a relationships and sexuality education programme for primary schools which stated that "the Church's teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted" when discussing LGBT issues.

The CRC has called on Ireland to strengthen measures to "eliminate discrimination" against LGBTI children, as well as children of minority faith or non-faith backgrounds.

The NSS welcomed other recommendations from the CRC:

  • Ensure adolescents can access age-appropriate reproductive health services, including safe abortions and contraception.
  • Ensure child victims of abuse by clergy and in 'Magdalene laundries' and 'mother and baby homes' have access to justice and effective remedies.
  • Prohibit all marriages before the age of 18 years.
  • Adopt a national action plan to prevent female genital mutilation and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.

NSS: "Crucial" for Ireland to adopt recommendations

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "The CRC's recommendations would make Ireland fairer for children from all religion and belief backgrounds, especially in education.

"Despite recent progress, education in Ireland remains dominated by religion, especially the Catholic church.

"That's why it's crucial for Ireland to adopt the CRC's recommendations to eliminate all forms of faith-based discrimination in its schools, and to establish schools with a secular ethos which are equally inclusive of all children."

"The same principles of equality and fairness should inform education policy in the UK, too."

The NSS has called on the CRC protect children's rights by recommending an end faith-based religious discrimination and compulsory worship during its ongoing review of the UK's implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Image: SariMe, Shutterstock

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