“Give me a child till he is seven and I will show you the man”
This quote is attributed to many people and many ideologues. Some good people and some very bad people have said exactly this, or some paraphrasing of it. There is an essential truth in it, that those who give moral instruction to the child form the values of society. The Irish constitution acknowledged this wisdom and put the supreme role for the moral instruction of the child firmly within the structures of the family unit and in the hands of the child’s parents.
It is the Constitutional recognition (in Bunreacht na hÉireann) of this parental right and duty towards the child’s education that prevents politicians or schools or the NCCA from forcing ideological and moral instruction on Irish school children without parental consent.
The NCCA has now sent the Minister a revised SPHE (Social Personal Health Education) curriculum, and the educational theorists who contribute to this review, and who, let’s face it, intend on conducting their experiment on other people’s children, are keen to make SPHE mandatory. However SPHE, though it might be packaged as “scientifically derived” or “factual” is values based instruction, and as such, legally, it cannot be forced upon your children.
Parents may not realize it, but this battle over who gives moral instruction to their children, has been ongoing for a very long time and has been successfully fought. They might find allies in unexpected places such as I did when I decided to withdraw my children from SPHE and found good advice coming from the Irish Atheist society.
For if the state cannot make religious instruction mandatory, they also cannot make any values instruction mandatory. When it comes to the moral, religious, or social values of the child – and there is no distinction between moral or religious values in Irish law – the state recognizes the supremacy of the child’s parents.
The full text of Article 42.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) states: “The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”
It is more than probable that the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, had consulted with her legal advisers who were informed by this article, when on May 18 2021 she answered a question from TD Stephen Mathews concerning the RSE program. In her response, referencing section 30.2(e) of the Education Act (1998) she stated that: “parents have a right to have their children opt out of instruction in any subject contrary to their conscience if they so wish”.
Section 30 – 2 (e) of the Education Act 1998 reads:
“Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the Minister – shall not require any student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or, in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student”
It is within the rights of parent(s) of a school child to go into their child’s school and inform them their child will not be participating in any moral instructions that go against their conscience. They do not need to justify their decision, but the school must respect their wishes.
Easier said than done you might say! However, the law is clear on this, and thought the school principle and/or board of management might want to insist and negotiate some sort of compromise; this does not change the rights of the parents.
In our case the school argued that the SPHE course was not really a values based class, it included lessons on hygiene and other useful things. They also said that our child couldn’t be removed because of resource issues; that our child could only be removed from the RSE element of the class; etc.
At the end of the day though, the constitutional recognition of the place as the parents as the ultimate moral instructor of the child is the immovable principle which all other principles and policies have to give way to.
Despite what some teachers may naively think, SPHE is a class of moral instruction. It does purport to pass moral values to children. In this way it is no different to religious instruction, and you have every right to withdraw your children from it for any reason of conscience. Conscience is a difficult thing to pin down, but essentially it is no different to a firmly held belief or a matter of faith. Like any fundamental thing it is not subject to laws of logical reasoning.
Despite what rationalist atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins might say, faith and conscience are at a deeper level than logic and can’t be explained by it.
In our case, we stuck to our original argument that this was a values-based class that was contrary to our conscience.
That much is very clear from a review of the course material, because it is all about how the child should ethically respond to issues in life. It is structured to form the child’s epistemological overview; in short it is instruction on how to feel and how to respond through a system of ethics.
Anyone that argues this is not values instruction on a level with religious instruction is too ignorant to be instructing anyone on morality or philosophy.
One last thing that parents should be aware of is the legal recognition in legislation that they are central to the moral, spiritual, and social, development of their children and should be consulted in these matters. They have a right to insist upon this consultation, and in being informed of what takes place in the classroom.
Section 9(d) of the Education Act (1998) obliges Boards of Management to use their available resources to promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and provide health education for them, in consultation with their parents. Consulting with parents means that sensitive information could be disclosed and processed as parents have a right to opt their children out of Relationship and Sexuality Education on the basis of conscience (Section 30 of the Education Act 1998).
With our child’s school we found an accommodation that respected our wishes. For the school it was an unusual request which they had not come across frequently so they were reluctant to accommodate us. However, they agreed to comply when our arguments around the legal position had been presented.
Eventually this wider issue will come to a head, where a school’s (or the NCCA to be more precise) wishes and the Irish constitution come into conflict. This issue will probably end up as a judicial review when some parent find their rights denied and no remedy is given by the school. The law makers are aware of this Rubicon and are loath to try crossing it. However, the pedagogical theorists who seem to populate the consultative boards who advise the NCCA are more intent on performing their social experiments on our children, and they will undoubtedly try and push for the crossing of this Rubicon.
Parents would do well to be aware of what is happening and to start letting their children’s school know they are taking an active role.
Elaine Fogarty is a mother of 4 school going children