IT's a variation of the old science-versus-religion story. According to the OECD, twice as much time is spent teaching religion in our primary schools compared to other developed countries, and critics are saying more of that time should be spent teaching science instead.
It looks, on the surface, to be a very compelling argument. Traditionally, Irish students don't do so well in science and maths compared with their counterparts in some other countries. So it would appear that answer is to spend more time on very practical, useful subjects like science and maths, and less time on that most 'impractical' of all subjects, religion.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has made similar points in the past. Last year, commenting on figures indicating that literacy and numeracy levels among Irish pupils have fallen, he suggested one answer was to spend less school time preparing children in second class and sixth class for First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
He did, however, allow that religious education still has a place in Irish schools.
But he left a very important point out of his analysis, namely that in the past our literacy and numeracy levels were higher even though the same amount of time was spent teaching religion.
This is crucial. If the time spent teaching religion is the culprit, then literacy and numeracy levels should have been lower in the past as well. Clearly something else is to blame. That is what Ruairi Quinn should be investigating rather than looking for easy and fashionable scapegoats.
What has changed to drag down levels of numeracy and literacy among Irish students? As mentioned, it can't be religion because the time spent on it is the same as it was when we were doing better at reading and maths.
Has Minister Quinn ordered an investigation into the amount of time our primary schools devote to maths, compared with say, 30 years ago? Is it more, less or the same?
Have teaching techniques changed? Are they better or worse or the same? Has he spoken to highly experienced teachers to get their opinions? Has education in Ireland become too centralised with the Department of Education exerting too much control over the curriculum?
The OECD table printed in this newspaper on Wednesday showing the amount of time allocated to particular subjects showed that, while we devote less time to science and maths than most other countries, we devote considerably more time to reading and writing.
This is very curious, because if that is so, then why in the world are literacy levels among our young people falling compared with other countries?
Again, is it because of poor education techniques? Or maybe kids here read fewer books in their own time than kids in say, Germany.
That's something else the critics should investigate before pointing the finger of blame at Religious Education (RE).
In fact, by blaming RE so readily, without investigating other possible causes, the critics are merely showing they are prejudiced. In other words, they are being unreasonable and unscientific. Or to put it another way, they are not being led by evidence.
That is rather ironic given that they are attacking the teaching of RE in the name of science.
In addition, they must demonstrate why spending 10pc of the school day teaching religion is a bad thing in itself. At an absolute minimum any objective person will acknowledge that Jesus was one of the greatest moral teachers who ever lived. His teachings are a priceless guide to living a full and worthwhile life. Nothing is more practical. Knowledge of maths pales by comparison, as important as maths is.
Kids who go to Christians schools should leave those schools with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the teachings of Jesus.
But there is also a very big and unassailable piece of evidence that the critics of RE have to consider before they continue their anti-RE crusade, and is it this; study after study has shown that Church-run schools produce better educational results, on average, than other types of schools.
By Church-run, I don't simply mean the Catholic Church, I mean all the major Churches.
In the UK, for example, official Government studies have found that Church-run schools typically outperform State-run schools, and it's not because they cherry-pick students. In fact, Catholic schools in England have a higher percentage of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds than State-run schools do.
The result is that parents are queuing up to get their children into those schools. None of those parents have the slightest fear that, because Church-run schools devote quite a lot of time to religion (surprise, surprise), their children will emerge at the other end less literate and numerate than the norm. They know the opposite is likely to happen.
This is the gigantic fact the critics of RE in schools need to explain away. They won't be able to.
Therefore, pitting RE against science and maths is simply mischief-making based on prejudice -- and prejudice should have no place in any debate about education.