A programme for the reform of the whole system is what is wanted. State built and State equipped school buildings in every district; management by a State department of Education… When a thorough system of secular education is advocated it is by many thought that religion is thereby endangered. This is not so. Religious instruction in schools is apt to be a mere routine which does not touch the finer feelings. Religious instruction in the schools has done much to destroy religious teaching in the home. The indifferent parent has satisfied his conscience by delegating some of his most important duties to the schoolmaster. In a country which has no State Church there is no State religion to be taught in the State Schools and it is the duty of the various religious denominations to see that their children get proper religious instruction without unnecessarily sacrificing their secular education and thereby providing third-rate education and routine religious instruction… Good secular education, so far from being bad for religion, would be good for it. By separating the religious from the secular instruction and confining it to the Church, the Sunday-school, and above all to the home, it would gain an impressiveness and a sanctity which it now lacks.
The quotation given above was written by John Campbell, M.A., M.D., LL.D., and published under the heading National Education in Ireland one hundred years ago in December 1910. To give the historical context, that is two years before my great grandfather signed the Ulster Covenant, four years before the Great War began, six years before the Easter Rising in Dublin, twelve years before the partition of Ireland, it comes after all the debates for Home Rule in Ireland, and forty years after the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.
The words hit home to me as I read them in this month’s edition* of the same journal in which they were published back in 1910†. In a way they speak to me and show how far we have not come in Northern Ireland. Too many people insist on the inclusion of religious instruction – and worse still, religious ethos – in schools paid for by the State. As Dr Campbell says,
[Ireland] has no State Church… no State religion to be taught in the State Schools…
of the Northern Irish education system in October this year. Mr Robinson later went on to say that
Future generations will not thank us if we fail to address this issue.
Far from it being future generations that will not thank us, the current generations are not thanking the previous generations of political leaders for failing us. Their failure to show the leadership that was required to stand up to the many differing religious denominations and faiths that were quite happy to take State money to pay for the schools that they influence.
It is time for these wrongs to be righted. It is time for the whole of Northern Irish society to work together to allow those parents who believe in a religion to take the responsibility that is placed on them to educate their own children in that faith, along with their own clerics.
Let us take courageous steps now – to change the course of history – to work to ensure that all our children are educated together in State schools without the influence of religion. Let’s have one school system, with options for those who wish to be educated in the Irish medium, but one system, bringing all our children together. Only by doing this have we a chance to create that goal of the Northern Ireland Executive: a shared future.