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What is the biggest issue for Community National Schools?

The Community National School model is being lauded as the ideal solution for primary education in Ireland as a compromise to the near-monopoly that all churches have on primary education. Started by then Fianna Fáil Education Minister, Mary Hanafin in 2007, the CNS model is supposed to be a “happy medium” between denominational education and multi-denominational (now known as equality-based) education in that the schools would welcome people from all faiths and none but they would also receive sacramental preparation during the school day. If there was enough demand other faiths would also receive faith formation in the school day. Since its inception, it has been celebrated as an excellent model by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the Catholic Church. Its critics point to the fact that children are segregated during the day based on their religious background. Community National Schools defend themselves saying that the segregation only happens for 4 weeks of the year and that it is similar to taking children out for Learning Support.

The current Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, is buying into the Community National School model but yesterday, Leo Varadkar, also a Fine Gael Minister, spoke out against the model, remembering his own school experiences where children were left out of certain parts of the day. Furthermore, despite its support from the major powers in the country, already it has been embroiled in scandal through findings from the freedom of information where special deals have been made with the Catholic Church to guarantee special privileges. Bruton now wishes to explore the idea of the Catholic Church and the CNS being co-patrons of schools, in itself a very worrying development for those who do not subscribe to the Catholic religion, as it would appear there is very little difference between this model and the current model except for the handing over of paperwork.

All of the above aside, ultimately, the fundamental issue for Community National Schools is faith formation within school time. If they were to take this out of the equation, nobody could really have a huge problem with them. It is not hard to analyse why faith formation during school time doesn’t work. In fact, it has been tried and tested by Educate Together already and found to be impossible to give children equal respect and hence any faith formation happens outside of school time. How is this?

The CNS model believes that bringing everyone together for a generic programme for most of the year and then segregating the children according to their family’s beliefs for a time is the way to go. They have devised a way to segregate all the faiths. Firstly, they have sacramental preparation and faith formation for Catholic children. This, by law, always happens no matter how many Catholic children are in the school because of a deal done with the Catholic Church. Now, if there are children from other Christian backgrounds, they also get faith formation classes. However, there was no deal done with any of the Protestant churches as they felt this would be out of kilter with 21st century thinking. Moving on, Muslim children, if they have a suitably qualified teacher and enough demand, also get faith formation. Given that there are no probated and qualified teachers in Ireland with a background in Islam, Muslim children have to be taught by a non-qualified teacher or a qualified teacher with little knowledge of Muslim faith formation.

Looking at the story so far, if you are a Catholic child, you are in a privileged position automatically as there is a cast iron guarantee that your faith formation will happen. You probably have a decent chance of getting faith formation if you subscribe to a different Christian denomination but I would imagine the various flavours of “other Christians” disagree on certain things, which might make classes a bit difficult. There’s also the issue of no guarantee of classes if a suitable teacher can’t be found. Finally, if you are Muslim, while you might get some faith formation, it’s very unlikely that it will be given by a suitably qualified teacher.

What about the rest of the 3,000+ faiths as well as those without a faith? According to the CNS model, your child will get lumped into some sort of generic class where there is absolutely no common ground in terms of faith formation. These “others” should they exist, will get some sort of programme that hasn’t really been thought out completely yet but will somehow provide for the faiths of every other religion and the lack of it from those who do not have a belief in a deity.

The CNS model cannot by its own programme provide for more than 3 faiths. This in itself is a complete failure in what it is trying to achieve. Providing an equality-based model means that every single child is catered for not just the majority. While the majority of people living in Ireland may subscribe to the 3 faiths catered to, who is to say that this won’t change in the near future. The fastest growing religion in Ireland is “No Religion” and it is likely to contain 10% of the population at the next census count. This means that at least 1 in 10 children are “othered” by the CNS model.

Whatever the CNS model’s argument, it is impossible for them to provide a structure where faith formation can occur during the school day without it being unequal. The only way they can possibly achieve it is to ensure that every child that wishes to have instruction in their faith gets that instruction. It is undoubtedly short-sighted to keep going with this model if it isn’t one that is future-proofed. Ireland is becoming more and more multicultural with more and more belief systems settling in more and more parts of the country and it is impossible to plan for this.

The solution for the CNS model is to scrap faith formation during the school day and use the programme they are using for the “others” as the programme for all of its children. They can then have their faith formation programmes moved to outside of the school day for any parent who wishes to take them on and they can start developing programmes for each of the potential 3,000+ religions that join their schools, if they so wish to be supporting the whole of their communities.

As a matter of interest, I went to a school that had a similar model. Looking back on it, despite having an excellent academic education, because of the faith formation aspect, it didn’t work. In my school, two religions received faith formation during the day. One faith was favoured over the other faiths and school holidays, dietary rules and other oddities were treated as the norm. Faith formation classes happened at the same time to the two different faiths. (I remember someone called Sister Mary who was in the school sometimes but I never really knew what she did while I was there.) Many of the children in my class grew up ignorant of their classmate’s faiths because they weren’t ever spoken about. I was in a class with children from many different faiths and none for most of the day, similar again to the CNS model. Some of these children didn’t get faith formation so started school later in the day. I only left school with a knowledge of the faith I was brought up with. Many of my co-religionists are now adults with questionable views on the faiths of their ex-classmates, which I see from time to time on social media. I had a good education but because I was segregated from my classmates during religious instruction, I missed out on wonderful learning opportunities about other faiths. I would also argue that I wasted a lot of time on faith formation and that some of the faith formation I received was, at best, questionable, but that’s not really relevant to this argument. While I was lucky to be raised in a family where I was taught to respect everyone no matter who they were, it is clear that this isn’t always the case and it is upsetting to see that some people I went to school with can be so hateful of people who were their classmates especially as the reasons are because of their religious views.

The Community National School almost mirrors the template of my own primary school experience and, while I can look back and see the problems that it caused, however subtle, the potential for these problems are there. I just cannot see how it is a good idea to put people into separate places when they are children and then expect them to magically be able to interact with these same people when they become adults. The only solution is to ensure that children grow up in the same world that they are going to live in as adults. Schools are little worlds and they should have the same rules as the greater world. We already have a model of education that provides this and even if it could be used as a template for a State-run system, we would be doing our children a huge favour when they reach adulthood.

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