RADICAL changes on the way in the teaching of religion in Catholic primary schools will, for the first time, see pupils studying other faiths.
It will be a major departure from tradition in the 90pc of primary schools where religion classes focus exclusively on the teachings of the Catholic Church.
A proposed new religious education programme, being drawn up under the auspices of the Catholic bishops, allocates time for the formal study of faiths other than Christianity.
The amount of time devoted to other religions will vary depending on the age of the children, with two weeks per year set aside for fifth and sixth class pupils.
The time allocation for third and fourth class pupils will be one week per year, while it will be one-and-a-half hours per year for first and second class pupils.
The teaching of religion in primary schools is an increasing source of debate – in ever-sharper focus as Irish society has become more diverse and Ireland's educational performance on the world stage comes under regular scrutiny.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn sparked controversy last week when he said some of the time given to it would be better used on literacy and numeracy.
The dominant role of the Catholic Church in primary education and the degree to which its schools are welcoming of children of other faiths has also been challenged.
The proposed new inter-religious curriculum for Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education Curriculum for Ireland has been in preparation for some years.
While it is not formally linked to moves initiated by Mr Quinn for greater pluralism in primary education, it will be welcomed in that context.
Key points from the draft programme are outlined in a submission to the Department of Education's consultation on promoting greater inclusiveness in primary schools, seen by the Irish Independent.
The submission was written by the chairperson of the Catholic Schools' Partnership (CSP), Fr Michael Drumm, on behalf of the CSP and the Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA).
While the new curriculum is intended to open pupils' minds to other faiths, the submission makes clear that there will be no dilution in the Catholic ethos of these schools.
Among its objectives is the need "to prepare young children for living in contact with other Christians and people of other religions, affirming their Catholic identity, while respecting the faiths of others".
It states that all children in Catholic schools have a right to learn about diverse faiths and know that there are many faiths practised in Ireland.
The new curriculum will replace the Alive-O programme, which has been the basis of religion teaching in Catholic primary schools for about 15 years.
The consultation process to which the CSP/CPSMA submission was part of Mr Quinn's response to the Report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.
The advisory group recommended that some Catholic schools be handed over to other patron bodies in the interests of creating choice for parents in areas where there is none.
It also made a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that schools are as inclusive as possible and accommodate students of various belief systems and traditions.