EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn wants less religion to be taught in primary schools and the time saved to be devoted to improving children's literacy and numeracy. The minister's call comes amid a new initiative requiring schools to devote an extra 30 minutes per week to specifically fostering these skills. It puts additional pressure on primary teachers who are already trying to teach up to 11 subjects.
The teachers said that finding extra time for literacy and numeracy means something has to give. This led to Mr Quinn saying it was his own view that the extra 30 minutes per week could be taken from religion teaching. Mr Quinn points out that, in other countries, schools are secular and things such as preparation for Confirmation and Holy Communion are dealt with by the parish out of school hours. As things stand, teachers must spend 30 minutes per day on religion and a survey by the primary teachers' union, INTO, last year found that 70pc of schools spend more than this once preparation for sacraments was factored in.
This is a sensitive and potentially divisive subject. Mr Quinn is known to have strong secularist views but the views of parents and teachers must also be carefully assessed here. The Catholic bishops have signalled alarm, saying they support improving numeracy and literacy but religious values need not be neglected.
It is all well and good to cite countries like France and Belgium, which have a long history of laicism in their education system. We also have to acknowledge the long tradition of faith schools in Irish education. We must also take account of the views of the minority Protestant communities and the newer religious groups that have flourished here over the past 40 years. It is clear that education is changing and the Catholic Church lacks the personnel to maintain the presence within the system it had in previous times.
Mr Quinn also tells us that he is frustrated at the slow progress in transferring many Catholic schools to a new system of patronage. But this is happening and we must have patience to adjust to a new system for which we have little previous experience. It would appear that the Education Minister requires more of the virtues long associated with good teaching – patience and sensitivity.