HOME-SCHOOL INTERFACE: Religious and Moral Formation in Ireland

Record: Merike Darmody, Maureen Lyons & Emer Smyth, “The home-school interface in religious and moral formation: the Irish case.” British Journal of Religious Education, 38, No. 3 (2016): 249-263. [Abstract]

Summary: Darmody and Smyth are researchers at the Economic and Social Research Institute, and Lyons is a research manager in the School of Social Justice at University College Dublin. In this article they investigate the roles that parents and school staff take in children’s faith and moral development and possible tensions that arise between parents and schools over issues relating to religious and secular beliefs in the context of the predominantly Roman Catholic Irish primary education system.

While there is much research that emphasizes the importance of parents in the formation of children’s religious and moral beliefs, the education system in Ireland also plays a role by explicitly teaching religious doctrine and values and by informally imparting norms and values in regards to dress and behavior.

Particularly in Ireland, where 91% of all primary schools are under Catholic ownership and control, it is difficult for minority faith parents to completely opt out of religious education due to the fact that geographic access to a multi-denominational school may simply not exist. In practice this means that 59% of Catholic schools have students from minority faith or secular groups, which has resulted in some children reporting being teased or bullied for being different. While parents have the right to opt their children out of religious education, it is common for minority/no faith children to remain in the classroom when the rest of the students are involved in religious education,

In this study, the authors conducted individual interviews with 26 parents, 9 teachers, and 5 school principals from five case-study schools in order to study the development of religious identities among primary school children in various institutional settings (three schools were Catholic; one was Church of Ireland, and one was multi-denominational). Four of the five schools were located in the Dublin area so that the authors could see the implications of having school choice.

First they looked into the perceptions of teachers and principals on their role in the students’ religious and moral formation. It was generally thought by the school officials that religious and moral education should come primarily from home and then be reinforced at school. However, some of the school employees negatively assessed the moral education that children receive at home, especially when the school served students who were not affluent. The belief was that parents do not help students to develop their religious and moral beliefs as they should. Interestingly, even within the multi-denominational school, which did not provide religious instruction, the staff viewed moral education as an essential part of schooling.

Next the authors discuss how parents view the role of school in the religious socialization of their children. While some of the families characterized school as the best possible place for their children to learn about religion and morals, others (particular those whose faith conflicted with the beliefs of their school) said that faith formation was primarily a family’s duty. Some families who were not religious expressed the desire for their children to obtain a certain level of religious literacy in their religious schools. Muslim families were the most likely to engage to in overt, religiously oriented interactions.

As previously mentioned, parents supposedly have the right to opt their children out of religious education. However, in four of the five schools in this study, opting out meant that the children remained in the classroom unless there was a special circumstance. The alternative strategy adopted by the fifth school was that religion classes took place first thing in the morning so that those who did not wish to participate could arrive later.

Principals and teachers were very unaccommodating to families wishing to opt out of religion classes. In an interview with one of the Catholic school principals, the principal said that he or she tells parents wishing to opt out of religion classes that they must come in and look after their child if they opt out since the principal does not have the necessary personnel to look after somebody. Other teachers felt that children from minority groups should “respect” the majority group religion by following the same rules and routines such as saying prayers. Parents reported being compelled to keep their children in the religion classes, even if they conflicted with their beliefs, so that their children would not be marked as being different. When parents chose a school for factors such as location, academic status, or learning supports provided, they often believed that they should go along with the religious program since they knew what they were getting into beforehand.

Most of the parents did not perceive any tension between the religious and moral messages that children received at school and the ones that they received at home; however, many parents also indicated that they did not have substantial knowledge of the religious messages taught at their children’s school. For some of the parents who did perceive significant differences between home and school, the various worldviews were viewed as something positive that would enrich the child. Once again, parents of the majority religion argued that it should not be the majority’s responsibility to accommodate families of minority faiths. They also frequently equated non-Catholic beliefs with non-Irish backgrounds.

Appraisal: While this study did not involve home education as a structured practice, it does provide a fascinating look at how minority religious groups perceive a school environment that espouses a different belief system. Particularly interesting was the idea that religious minority families are the most likely to engage in explicit religious and moral instruction at home. While there are less than 1,000 home educated students in Ireland according to the HSLDA, one can presume that that number will probably grow significantly due to the growing religious diversity in the country. Hopefully a more substantial look at homeschooling in Ireland will be published soon.

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