Churches Lose Tight Grip on Ireland’s Public School System

BY AMANDA SOTO

It’s 1:15 p.m. The final bell has just rung. About 200 boys and girls flood the hallways of an eight-classroom primary school, chattering so loudly you can barely hear your own voice. What seems to be a typical grade school scene is not. Not in Ireland, at least.

What takes place in the small school guarded by tall, black iron gates on Dublin’s Ballymun Road is considered by some a novel idea. But to others it’s the only alternative to a school system run by religious denominations.

In Ireland not only do boys and girls go to separate schools, but children of different religious backgrounds also attend separate schools.

The national (public) school system was established in 1830. The Irish government pays the yearly education fee for each child. In 1873 the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations took over control of the schools.

* * *

It’s 1:20 p.m. at the little school on Ballymum Road. In the principal’s office the pictures on the walls show happy children of all denominations playing together. They’re inscribed “To Sally.” Sally Sheils that is, the principal of the multi-denominational Ballymun Road School.

Ballymun Road is one of just 56 schools in Ireland recognized as Educate Together schools. (Ireland has more than 3,000 primary schools.) Educate Together was established in 1975 by parents who wanted to send their children to a school where they would be taught side-by-side with boys and girls of all denominations.

Educate Together’s main goal was to bring historically divided Protestant and Catholic children together, a division perpetuated by the denominational control of the national school system. The schools embrace all beliefs and no beliefs, Sheils said. “The key word is ‘respect,’ and then apart from that, it’s encouraging children to learn about other beliefs.”

The children learn about the connection between themselves and the world, the environment and the beliefs and thought systems of others. “Our program encourages the development of the person, and if they respect themselves, they respect others,” Sheils said.

This core value lives on in former students like Jack Horgan, now 22.

* * *

Horgan sits at The Library Bar in Dublin’s Central Hotel, recalling his days in primary school. At the time he had no idea the Ballymun Road School was different until he attended a Catholic boys secondary school. (Parents didn’t have the funds to build an Educate Together secondary school.) “After leaving there [Ballymun Road] it was sort of a shock to my system,” he said.

At the Catholic school the boys wore uniforms and said prayers before every class. They had to write “AMDG”, which in Latin stands for “the greater glory of God,” on every piece of paper. The principal was a priest he never saw.

Horgan said this school was “progressive” compared with others.

* * *

 It’s 1:30 p.m. Sheils is sitting at her desk. Her windowsill is covered with Winnie the Pooh and Tiger dolls. Her lavender shirt also has Tiger on it.

A young girl with a sparkle-covered face interrupts and asks for help with something for the school play. Instead of a uniform, she’s wearing hot pink.

All kinds of children go to the Ballymun Road School. Children like the girl with the sparkly face.

Before the founding of Educate Together, “There was no recognition of people who didn’t want to subscribe to an organized religion within the system, and people were very concerned that the rights of those people would also be recognized,” Sheils said.

Educate Together schools receive the same annual fee per student from the government, so parents don’t have to pay to send their child there. But parents and the community must raise the money to build the school. This funding would usually come from the church.

* * *

It’s 1:50 p.m. The halls and the classrooms are empty. There’s no more chattering. The children have gone back to their own homes, to their own religions—or no religion at all.

Click here to see Megan Nelson’s news package on this story.

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