Monday 24 October 2016

'Religion time' in Catholic schools could be cut for first ever curriculum on beliefs and ethics

Published 03/11/2015 | 12:02

School (stock photo)
School (stock photo)

The time allowed in Catholic schools to teach children about their own religion could be cut to make way for the first ever State curriculum on beliefs and ethics.

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The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) today launched a consultation paper on a ground-breaking Education about Religion and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE) subject for all children, in all 3,000 primary schools.

It is sure to spark a controversy with Catholic Church figures, one of whom recently attacked the emerging plans for a compulsory world religions course in primary schools, including faith-based schools as 'bizarre'.

Traditionally, it has been up to the school patron – the Catholic Church in 90pc of cases   – to draw up a religion programme, and Department of Education rules allow 30 minutes a day for such classes.

In the case of Catholic schools such programmes are based on teaching their own faith and much of the class  time – and often more -  is used to prepare children for the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation.

Finding time in what is already regarded by teachers as an overloaded school day for the new ERBE subject could mean eating into the allocation for traditional religion classes.

In a sign of the robust debate ahead on the issue Professor Eamonn Conway of the Mary Immaculate primary teacher training college recently questioned why “a faith-based school would be required to offer what is essentially a secularist understanding of religious faith”.

He said its introduction would “undoubtedly adversely affect religious instruction and a faith-based school’s characteristic ethos.”

Proposals for the ERBE curriculum have been drafted arising from a recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, which was set up to explore 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 of central importance to children’s development.

According to the NCCA consultation paper, a curriculum for ERBE for all children is separate from programmes developed by school patrons and is not intended to replace the patron’s programme in faith formation in denominational schools.

But the paper acknowledges the time challenges facing primary schools, with teachers already y concerned about curriculum overload.

As it happens, separately from the developments in relation to EBRE, the NCCA is also looking at issues of time allocation in primary schools and will have proposals for the Minister for Education next year.

A new model for allocating time for all subjects could offer flexibility in terms of incorporating ERBE teaching. However, one option would involve reducing the time already give for religion classes, if time was not to be taken form other subjects.

The Catholic Church recently announced a new religious education programme in its schools that would introduce pupils to other faith and belief systems. However, research carried out for the NCCA concluded that teaching about religions and beliefs through the lens of a particular faith was not a recommended approach.

The consultation process is open to everyone and views are invited at when the consultation concludes, the NCCA will draw up formal advice for the Minister for Education and Skills

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