A ROW has broken out over the preparation of pupils for religious ceremonies such as First Communion in five experimental primary schools.
The five pilot Community National Schools use a multi-belief programme called "Goodness Me, Goodness You" that introduces pupils to all major religious and non-religious beliefs.
But crucially, it also provides time during the school year for separate specific religious instruction for children of different faiths.
That model was to be rolled out in future to cater for children of all faiths and those of no faith. But the row over preparation for religious ceremonies during school hours is a serious setback to government hopes for securing agreement with believers and non-believers on the new integrated school model.
The Catholic Church believes parents have the right to expect religious formation, including preparation for the sacraments, for their children during the school day. This was promised by former Education Minister Mary Hanafin when she launched the pilot scheme
The association objects to segregating pupils into believers and non-believers at an early age in school. It says this only emphasises divisions between young children instead of bringing them together and that it does not happen with other subjects.
It wants the minister to move all specific faith formation and preparation for religious ceremonies such as Communion out of the school day and offered, if parents wish it, after school. The association's support is regarded as important as there are 186,000 people of ''no religion' in the country, according to the last census.
A religious education reference group is overseeing the development of the "Goodness Me, Goodness You" programme.
It includes representatives of the management bodies, the main religious groups and the Humanist Association.
The association's representative until last week was Dick Spicer who was supportive of the programme, but who resigned when he failed to get the backing of fellow association members.
He has been replaced by association chair Brian Whiteside who is keeping a "watching brief" on behalf of the association but who has made known his fundamental objection to the programme. The association instead wants Ms Coughlan to adopt the approach used in multi-denominational Educate Together schools.
These schools run a common ethical programme called Learn Together, with faith formation taught by individual churches outside school hours. Educate Together chief executive Paul Rowe said its experience was that the only way to treat all beliefs equally in a multi-denominational school was to have an 'opt in' facility for faith formation after school hours.
The association's view would cause concern to promoters of the pilot programme that enjoys the support of the main religious groupings including the Irish Vocational Education Association, whose general secretary Michael Moriarty said the programme could work and that it should be given a chance to meet parents' wishes in the local community.