UN Committee tells Ireland to end religious bias in schools

14 February, 2023

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has told the Republic of Ireland’s Government that it should take steps to remove religious bias from all education settings. The recommendations come in its ‘universal periodic review’ of Ireland’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Humanists UK, which campaigns for the removal of all religious discrimination in the school system in the UK, welcomed the recommendations, and said it hoped governments in the UK were taking note.

The Committee recommended that, in order for Ireland to guarantee children’s rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief, it should:

(a) remove any exceptions to ensuring a child’s right to education in all primary and secondary schools based on religious or “ethos” grounds and establish statutory guidelines to ensure children’s right not to attend religious classes;

(b) develop a time-bound strategy, with adequate resources, for meeting its targets for increasing the availability of multi-denominational schools by 2030, and set a target with a time-bound strategy and adequate resources for increasing the availability of non-denominational schools.

In 2018 Ireland legislated to remove the so-called ‘baptism barrier’ for admission to Catholic primary schools. By 2022 there had been a notable decline in recorded baptisms. The latest recommendations from the UNCRC go further than this, and would extend the removal of such religious bias in admissions to secondary schools, as well as formalising a right to withdraw themselves from religious education.

It has also recommended a reduction in single-faith schools as a proportion of all schools, as well as a greater number of schools without a religious character. This would help Ireland’s schools to be more representative of an increasingly non-religious population.

The recommendations are important for Humanists UK, not least because in the UK, religious discrimination in schools remains rampant. In Northern Ireland, the schools are almost entirely segregated along Catholic/Protestant lines. The RE curriculum was drawn up by the four main churches, and is almost entirely focused on Christianity. It is invariably not taught in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner. Daily Christian worship is still mandated. The RE and collective worship laws were recently found to be unlawful in the High Court, as they breached the human rights of a non-religious father and his child to inclusive education.

In England and Wales, state funded faith schools make up a third of the total. They remain able to discriminate on religious grounds during the admissions process and appointment of teachers, and teach faith-based RE. Outside of the faith schools, RE in England is often not taught in an inclusive manner, and daily Christian worship laws dating back to the 1940s remain in force in both countries. These issues and others were highlighted in Humanists UK’s submissions to the UNCRC about what governments in the UK need to do to uphold the human rights of the non-religious. Humanists UK also recently gave oral evidence to the committee in Geneva – the concluding observations from this will be published soon.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann said: 

‘We welcome the UNCRC’s recommendations to Ireland. Ireland has recently taken significant steps towards becoming a more inclusive society, for example by abolishing religious discrimination in primary school admissions, but it clearly has further to go.

‘We hope that governments in the UK are paying attention – their calls to action from the UN will be landing shortly. It is vital that they take steps to guarantee the freedom of religion or belief of all children, and that means no segregation in admissions and lessons and assemblies that are objective, critical, and pluralistic.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about our work on schools and education.

Read the UNCRC’s concluding observations on Ireland.

Read our article about Humanists UK’s submissions to the UNCRC.

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