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Friday 2nd December 2016

All faiths, Integration, Mutuality, Pluralism, Respect, United

‘We need to teach world religions and ethics in our classrooms’

In my opinion… Cecelia Gavigan

Cecelia Gavigan, a primary school teacher in Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

The proposed introduction of a new Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE) curriculum has become a topic of much discussion. It may be tempting to reject this development as something we neither need nor want. And while the latter may be true, whether or not we need it requires more careful consideration.

At the minute, the curriculum makes no provision for children to learn about other religions. Consequently, in the absence of direct contact with peers from different religions in their school community, the images children have of particular groups can be solely reliant on how they are portrayed in the media.

How can we expect children (or indeed adults) to respect Muslims if the only thing they learn about them is that the incoming President of America wants to ban them from his country? We don’t leave their reading comprehension skills or mathematical competence to chance, so why would we do so with something as important as accurate understanding of the world around them?

Some might argue that learning about other religions could confuse children about their own faith.

However, in reality, studying other religions allows children the opportunity to discover the similarities between their own faith system and the beliefs of others, for example the parallel between Lent followed by the celebration of Easter and Ramadan, followed by the celebration of Eid, or indeed Yom Kippur being followed by Sukkot.

This can prompt more critical and reflective thought and, if anything, will allow children to understand their own faith more deeply while appreciating the common ways in which humans can choose to come together as a community to celebrate special days, mark sad ones, and thoughtfully reflect on their own behaviour at particular times of the year.

At a time when the world seems more divisive, a development that allows us to focus on our common humanity must surely be welcome.

Consideration should also be given for children who are attending schools whose belief system does not match their own religious (or indeed non–religious) belief. What must it be like to go through your entire school life without any acknowledgement of your beliefs being recognised or explored in the classroom? What kind of message does this send about who really belongs to our society? And more importantly, how is this affecting our country into the future?

The other aspect of the new curriculum is that of ethics. How can anyone look at the recent behaviour of high–profile leaders in charities or, indeed, politicians in the past and argue against the introduction of ethics in our schools? Yet, did we ever give them the chance to really think about and develop their own values as they went through our education system?

If there is one thing we should ask of our future leaders, it is that they will make moral decisions for the betterment of society. Again, we can’t leave this to chance, we have to teach them how.

Yes, change can be scary and change can be difficult. Nobody is saying this is going to be easy. It requires open–mindedness from all stakeholders in our education system. It requires a willingness to learn. It requires the ability to step back and focus on the bigger picture.

Education systems are complex places; there are no easy decisions. There are, however, good decisions. We may not all want this new addition to the primary school curriculum but, like it or not, we do need it.

Even with ERBE, the Irish primary sector would still need an extensive divestment programme. Parents and teachers (especially LGBT teachers) continue to require much greater choice of schools (especially outside of the Dublin region). This point cannot be made strongly enough.

Cecelia Gavigan is a primary school teacher in Balbriggan, Co Dublin

Irish Independent