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Irish Citizens’ Assembly could debate ending church control of schools

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, told the lower house of the Irish Parliament on Tuesday that he was happy to consider a debate in the Citizens’ Assembly on ending church patronage of schools in Ireland. The move was originally requested by the leader of the Labour Party, Brendan Howlin, who said the option of using the Citizens’ Assembly was, ‘significant for many who want choice in the education they provide for their children’. The Citizens’ Assembly was founded in 2016 and produces reports that are then considered by the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament. It has previously been used to consult on abortion, climate change, and other major policy issues.

Humanists UK, which campaigns against the state-funding of faith schools, has welcomed the opportunity for the role of the church in education to be debated.

Currently, the Catholic church controls around 90% of the state primary schools in Ireland, leaving parents with limited options if they wish to avoid a faith school education for their children. Irish Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is pushing for total reform of church patronage in the education system, stating that:

‘We have 4,000 schools in the State and there are ongoing issues such as access, employment rights for non-religious teachers, school ethos, sex education and so on. The Citizens’ Assembly could deal with these issues together rather than tinkering with existing laws.’

This news follows the recent announcement by the Irish Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, that the government are going ahead with plans to remove the so-called ‘baptism barrier’ for admission to Catholic primary schools. That legislation is to be debated this week. The Education Minister also launched a survey on Monday consulting parents in sixteen areas of Ireland on whether they support religious patronage in schools or wish to see it removed and control given to multi-denominational patrons.

The progress made by the Irish government in tackling the power of faith groups in the state education system is in marked contrast to the actions of the UK Government. Far from announcing steps to challenge faith schools, the Education Secretary has instead made  funds available for new 100% religiously selective voluntary aided schools.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman commented, ‘Schools are for education, not indoctrination. For too long religious organisations have been granted undue control over schools around the world, and for the benefit of children, parents, and society more broadly, that needs to change. Governments throughout the UK should take heed of Ireland’s progress and offer the chance for the continued existence of faith schools in the UK to be debated.’  


For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman on or 0207 324 3078.

Read our previous news item on the removal of the ‘baptism barrier’:

Read our previous news item on the UK Government’s funding of new religiously selective schools:

Read more about our work on faith schools:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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