Massive change now on cards for religion teaching
The teaching of religion in primary schools is facing its biggest ever shake-up with controversial plans for the first State programme in the subject.
Government education advisers have unveiled proposals for a ground-breaking Education about Religion, Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE) subject for all children, in all 3,000 primary schools.
The proposals would mean a cut in the amount of time allocated in schools to teach children about their own religion, certain to raise hackles within the Catholic Church.
Professor Eamonn Conway of the Mary Immaculate primary teacher training college has described the proposals as "bizarre" .
He has questioned why "a faith-based school would be required to offer what is essentially a secularist understanding of religious faith" and said its introduction would "undoubtedly adversely affect religious instruction and a faith-based school's characteristic ethos."
The Catholic Church runs 90pc of primary schools and, like other patron bodies, it currently has the authority to devise it own religious education programme for its pupils.
Department of Education guidelines allow 30 minutes a day for such classes and, in denominational schools, such programmes revolve around teaching their own faith, including preparations for the sacraments.
The introduction of a new State curriculum on religion and ethics presents a fresh challenge about where it would slot into the schedule.
One option would be to eat into the existing allocation for religion teaching - meaning less time on Church teachings.
The alternative would be to take time from teaching other subjects such as English, Maths, Science and Irish.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has launched a consultation document on the issue, inviting all members of the public to offer their views, before it draws up final advice for the Minister for Education.
The NCCA plan has found favour with the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), although it acknowledged a key challenge would be to find space for the proposals in an already over-crowded curriculum. The INTO previously suggested a common religion programme for all children - with some separate religious instruction, perhaps for one or two classes per week.
Another option would be a common programme taught during school hours with separate religious instruction after school.
Proposals for the ERBE curriculum have been drawn up arising from a recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, which explored ways to cater for the increasingly diverse school-going population. This is the body that came up with a plan for the divestment of some Catholic schools to other patron bodies, which has been an exceedingly slow process.
Other key recommendations were concerned with how to ensure that schools that remain Catholic in ethos are truly inclusive of all pupils, regardless of their beliefs.
Patrick Sullivan, Director of Curriculum and Assessment at the NCCA, said a broad education about religion and beliefs helps children to understand the cultural heritage of major forms of religion, and did not nurture the belief or practice of any one. He said learning about ethics was important for all, but developing modes of ethical behaviour was vital to children's development.
According to the consultation paper, ERBE is not intended to replace the patron's programme in faith formation in denominational schools.