Monday, May 20, 2024

Alexander O’Hara: Many parents still value a Catholic education, but too few teachers are willing to provide it

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Sigmund Freud famously quipped that the Irish were the only people in the world resistant to psychoanalysis. They may also be the only people in the world who do not fully appreciate the benefits of Catholic education.

Throughout the world Catholic schooling and education are highly regarded and prized for the holistic education and academic excellence they can provide. In many countries, Catholic schools outperform state schools in academic terms. In France, Muslim students have frequently opted for a Catholic education over a secular one, and one in ten non-Catholic pupils in Catholic schools in England and Wales are Muslim while here, Irish schools have been seen as “very accommodating” and “as inclusive as possible” to Muslim students.

Recently a motion to remove the certificate in Religious Studies was passed by primary school teachers at the INTO annual congress in Derry. The certificate is currently required in order to teach in Catholic primary schools in Ireland. Teachers serve the children they teach who should be their sole focus – but there was little mention of children in the discussions about removing the Certificate in Religious Studies.

According to the latest Census, the majority of the Irish population still identify as Catholic – almost two-thirds. Parents are the first and primary teachers of their children in faith. If a parent decides to send their child to a Catholic school, they are delegating this responsibility to the teacher and the teacher is mandated to teach the religious education curriculum as an integral part of the curriculum. Religious Education is a subject just as History, Maths, and English are. Whether the teacher is a Catholic or not, if they are hired to teach in a Catholic primary school, they must teach the religious education curriculum. While their salary is paid for by the State, they teach on Church-owned property and are hired by the board of management on behalf of the Catholic patron to teach the full curriculum.

Children have a right to be taught the full curriculum, including religious education. And Catholic patrons have the right to insist that teachers have the certificate in Religious Studies if they wish to teach in Catholic primary schools.

The right to freedom of religion is further protected by international human rights law and by the Irish Constitution. Article 42 (1) of the Constitution of Ireland reads: “The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”

The forthcoming Global Researchers Advancing Catholic Education (GRACE) report prepared by an international group of researchers studying Catholic education in Ireland, which surveyed 4,000 school staff and teachers is the largest-ever data-gathering exercise in regard to the realities of Catholic education in the history of the Irish State. Due to be launched on Tuesday, the report will show that the religious education curriculum is, in many instances, not being taught in a comprehensive and professional manner. When it comes to religious education, many primary school teachers are failing those who they were hired to serve: the children.

Whether teachers themselves believe in God or not, or are Catholic or not, they are first and foremost called to be teaching professionals

Catholic patrons are currently in dialogue with the Department of Education on the issue of divesting more primary schools. The fact of the matter is that many Catholic primary schools do not wish to divest – and that is coming from both parents and teachers who, on the whole, are very satisfied with the current patronage model.

The Genesis report that was conducted by an independent management consultancy revealed that the majority of parents (78 per cent) are satisfied with the education of their children in Catholic primary schools and support the Church’s role in the ethos of schools. Whether teachers themselves believe in God or not, or are Catholic or not, they are first and foremost called to be teaching professionals. And professionals are hired to teach the curriculum and serve their pupils. That should be their first priority.

That said, more supports need to be put in place to assist teachers in the teaching of The Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education Curriculum for Ireland (Irish Episcopal Conference, 2015) and with their own continuing professional development (CPD). Meetings with key stakeholders in Catholic primary education have recently been held to begin to address the need of CPD provision for teachers.

As the Catholic Church in Ireland sets out on its Synodal pathway, there is a keen awareness that schools and teachers have for too long carried a disproportionate weight in terms of preparing children for the reception of the sacraments. Parents are the primary teachers of their children in faith and they will need to play a more active role together with the whole ecclesial community of the parish in providing sacramental preparation for children and to ensure that the children receive a full religious education, which is their right. At the same time, teachers who are hired to teach in a Catholic primary school must teach the full Religious Education Curriculum.

Dr Alexander O’Hara is the National Director for Catechetics and Executive Secretary to the Council for Catechetics of the Irish Episcopal Conference

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