The multi-denominational experience

Áine Hyland

From Irish Educational Studies, 8, 1:1


When the National School system was set up in 1831, its main object was to 'unite in one system children of different creeds'. The National Board was 'to look with peculiar favour' on applicants for aid for schools jointly managed by Roman Catholics and Protestants. While many of the schools which were taken into connection with the Board in the early years were jointly managed, the main Christian churches put pressure on the government to allow aid to be given to schools under the management of individual churches.(1) This pressure was so effective that, by the mid-nineteenth century, only 4% of national schools were under mixed management.(2)

In terms of the curriculum, the main principle was that schools should offer 'combined moral and literary instruction'(3). While the Board would decide the curriculum for moral and literary instruction, the patron of each school would determine the form and content of religious instruction in the schools under his patronage. The Rules for National Schools to the present day set down that 'no pupil shall receive or be present at any religious instruction of which his parents or guardians do not approve'(4) and also 'that the periods of formal religious instruction shall be fixed so as to facilitate the withdrawal of [such] pupils'.(5)

The principle of mixed education remained the keystone of the National School system from 1831 to 1965. The Rules of the National Board, and subsequently of the Department of Education up to 1965 opened with the statement that

the system of National Education affords combined secular and separate religious instruction to children of all religions, and no attempt is made to interfere with the religious tenets of any pupils.(6)

The official lease of vested schools built in the period up to 1965 contained a similar statement:

...the object of the system of national education is to afford Combined literary and moral, and Separate Religious Instruction, to children of all persuasions, as far as possible, in the same school, upon the fundamental principle that no attempt shall be made to interfere with the peculiar religious tenets of any description of Christian pupils.(7)

From the mid-nineteenth century on, the Roman Catholic hierarchy made a number of efforts to convince the Government to recognise that the majority of national schools were denominational and to change the national school rules to take account of this reality. Examples of such efforts included representations to the Powis Commission in 1870 - this Commission recommended to the Government that amendments be made to the rules in regard to denominational schools in areas where there was more than one school.(8) Gladstone, who was prime minister at the time, initially considered accepting this recommendation, but he was prevailed upon by his advisers not to do so.(9) In the 1890s, after the introduction of legislation relating to compulsory education, the Catholic hierarchy again made strong representations to the Government to change the rules to take account of the de facto denominational situation. Initially, the Government seemed willing to introduce some changes, (10) and the rules were redrafted by the Office of National Education; but when the revised rules were submitted to Chief Secretary Morley, he felt that they had gone too far in giving recognition to the denominational character of national schools and he refused to sanction the revised rules.(11) One of the main difficulties faced by the Government advisers at that time was that of devising a formula which would give de jure recognition to denominational schools, while at the same time ensuring the children who did not belong to one of the main Christian churches would not be discriminated against. During both periods, the Nonconformists were particularly vocal in objecting to any change in the national school rules.(12)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Irish system of national education was fundamentally different to the systems in other parts of the United Kingdom. In England and Scotland 'parallel' systems had evolved, that is, denominational schools existed side by side with local authority controlled schools.(13) The development was also mirrored in other Western European countries. In Ireland provision was never made for a separate system of primary schools controlled by the local authority, largely because it had been found by the Powis Commission in 1870 that voluntary effort had adequately met the demand for elementary education in this country. As a result, by the mid-twentieth century, the system of national education in the Republic of Ireland was one which was de jure undenominational, but de facto denominational in 97 per cent of cases.(14)

When the Irish Free State was set up in 1921, no major changes were made in the administrative system of national education. Radical curricular reform was introduced in 1922, based on the recommendations of the First National Programme Conference.(15) In 1925, the government set up a committee under the chairmanship of Rev J McKenna SJ, to review the curriculum, and the report of this committee (known as the Second National Programme Conference), which was published in 1926, included the following statement.(16)

Of all the parts of the 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. We assume therefore, that Religious Instruction is a fundamental part of the school course. Though the time allotted to it as a specific subject is necessarily short, a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school. The teacher - while careful in the presence of children of different religious belief, not to touch on matters of controversy - should constantly inculcate, in connection with secular subjects the practice of charity, justice, truth, purity, patience, temperance, obedience to lawful authority and all the other moral virtues. In this way, he will fulfill the primary duty of an educator, the moulding to perfect form of his pupils' character, habituating them to observe in their relations with God and with their neighbour, the laws which God both directly through the dictates of natural reason and through Revelation, and indirectly through the ordinance of lawful authority, imposes on mankind.

As however, the prescribing of the subject-matter of Religious Instruction, the examination, and the supervision of its teaching are outside the competence of the Department of Education, no syllabuses of it are set forth.

The rules for national schools were amended to include an abridged version of this statement. While this statement highlighted the importance of religious instruction in national schools, there was no change in the 'fundamental principle' of the national school system.

In 1953, the Council of Education, which had been set up three years earlier, issued its report on the function and curriculum of primary schools and drew attention to what it regarded as an anomaly in the situation in regard to the control and management of national schools. The report pointed out that the theoretical object of the national school system 'is at variance with the principles of all religious denominations and with the realities of the primary schools and consequently that it needs restatement.' It was suggested that 'it be amended in accordance with Article 44.2.4° of the Constitution and that the fullness of denominational education may be legally sanctioned in those schools which are attended exclusively by children of the same religious faith. (Author's emphasis).(17)

When the Rules were eventually revised by the Minister for Education in `1965, no cognisance was taken of the fact that not all national schools were attended exclusively by children of the same denomination. Neither was there any provision made for parents who might not wish their children to attend denominational schools, although Article 42.4 which recognised 'the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation' was quoted. In the preface of the new Rules (1965 edition), the following statement was made.(18)

In pursuance of the provisions of these Articles [Articles 42 and 44.2.4°] the State provides for free primary education for children and gives explicit recognition to the denominational character of these schools.

It is difficult to understand how Articles 42 and 44.2.4° can be construed in this way. It is one thing to recognise that denominational schools are an acceptable element in the system and to guarantee that all schools will receive equal treatment - it is quite a different thing to say that all schools are denominational and to enshrine such a statement in the official rules for national schools.

The 1965 edition of the Rules also amended rule 68 - the rule relating to religious instruction. The paragraph from the 1926 Report was included - with small, but significant, amendments. Teachers were no longer required to be 'careful in the presence of children of different religious beliefs not to touch on matters of controversy.'(19) The omission of this phrase was clearly not an oversight. It would be interesting to know on what basis a decision was taken to delete this clause, which for nearly half a century had protected the rights of small minorities in the national school system. The publication of the new curriculum in 1971 added a further complication to the situation.(20) The new curriculum, which was widely welcomed for its many innovations, encouraged the integration of subjects, both religious and 'secular' subjects. In the introduction to part 1 of the Teachers' Handbook, it was stated that the curriculum should be seen 'more as an integral whole rather than as a logical structure containing conveniently differentiated parts'. The handbook was specific that this integration should embrace all aspects of the curriculum:(21)

The decision to construct an integrated curriculum... is based on the following theses... that the separation of religious and secular instruction into differentiated subject compartments serves only to throw the whole educational function out of focus... The integration of the curriculum may be seen in the religious and civic spirit which animates all its parts.

Taken together, the Rules of 1965 and the provisions of the 1971 curriculum created a new situation. The State now formally recognised the denominational character of the national school system and made no provision for, nor even adverted to the rights of those children whose parents did not wish them to attend exclusively denominational schools. It had removed the requirement for teachers to be sensitive to the religious beliefs of 'those of different religious persuasions'. According to the curriculum guidelines, all schools were expected to offer an integrated curriculum where religious and secular instruction would be integrated. While the rule under which parents were allowed to opt their children out of religious instruction still remained, the rule became effectively inoperable since religious and secular instruction would now be integrated. Even if religious instruction were separately timetabled, it could be assumed that a specifically denominational ethos would 'permeate the school day'.

The revision of the Rules in 1965 went much further than anything that the Catholic Church had sought to achieve in either the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The proposed revisions in the 1870s and the 1890s would have recognised the denominational character of a school in an area where there was choice. It was one thing for the State to accept the validity of the request of Catholic schools for formal recognition of the denominational character of their schools: it was an entirely different thing, in conceding this demand, to ignore the consequences for those citizens who regarded denominational education as being 'in violation of their conscience and lawful preference'.(22)

(1) Akenson, DH, The Irish Education Experiment: The National System of Education in Ireland in the Nineteenth Century, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1970

(2) 'Annual Report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, 1850,' contained in Reports of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, vol 1 from 1834 to 1851, HMSO, Dublin 1865

(3) Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, Rules for National Schools, 1898

(4) Department of Education, Rules for National Schools, Rule 68

(5) Ibid, Rule 69

(6) Department of Education, Rules for National Schools, 1947

(7) Official lease of National Schools vested in Trustees (copy in Appendix to 1898 Rules for National Schools)

(8) Final Report of the Powis Commission, 1870. (See extract in Hyland and Milne, Irish Educational Documents, vol 1, section V 14)

(9) Norman, ER, The Catholic Church and Ireland in the Age of Rebellion, 1859-1873, Longman, London 1965, pp 443-4

(10) Copy of Correspondence between the Irish Government and the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland in Relation to Proposed Changes in the Rules under which Grants are made by Parliament for Elementary Education in Ireland, pp 1893/4 (55), LXVII

(11) Copy of Further Correspondence between the Irish Government and the Commissioners: With extracts from Minutes of the Proceedings of the Commissioners, in Relation to Certain Proposed Changes in the Rules Under Which Grants are made by Parliament for Elementary Education in Ireland

(12) See Nonconformist, 8.9 1869, also Dickinson HH, Primary Education, Ireland - The Present Crisis Considered in Connection with the New Rules Proposed by the Commissioners of National Education, Hodges, Figgis, Dublin 1896

(13) Stuart, M, The Education of the People, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1967

(14) In 1953, the Council of Education pointed out that 'less than 3 per cent of schools are mixed schools, that is attended by children of different religious affiliations'

(15) National Programme Conference, National Programme of Primary Instruction, Browne and Nolan, Dublin, 1922

(16) National Programme Conference, Report and Programme, Stationery Office, Dublin 1926

(17) Department of Education, Report of the Council of Education, on (1) The function of the primary school, (2) The curriculum to be pursued in the primary school, Pr 2583, Stationery Office, Dublin 1954

(18) Preface to the Rules for National Schools, 1965

(19) National Programme Conference, Report and Programme, 1926

(20) Department of Education, Curaclam na Bunscoile - Primary School Curriculum - Teachers' Handbook, Browne and Nolan, Dublin 1971

(21) Ibid, introduction

(22) Government of Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann: Constitution of Ireland, Stationery Office, Dublin 1975