Sunday 18 March 2018

Church's backlash blocks change in religion classes

Government education body told their proposals do not comply with Catholic vision

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan: said curriculum would be impossible to implement Photo: John Power
Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan: said curriculum would be impossible to implement Photo: John Power
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The Catholic Church has stymied plans for the first ever State curriculum in world religions and ethics for primary schools.

Government education advisers are diluting their ambitions in the face of a fierce backlash from bishops and other key figures and organisations in Catholic education.

Church opposition is underpinned by the legal rights enjoyed by denominational schools in protecting their religious ethos.

The latest Church-State ­education clash has come to light in a report from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which is on the desk of Education Minister Richard Bruton.

The report is based on a ­public consultation process on the ­NCCA's proposals for an Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE) ­programme, launched a year ago.

The NCCA consultation ­triggered a massive reaction from Catholic interests who said the proposed curriculum was "unworkable" and would confuse pupils in the nine in 10 primary schools under their control.

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore, told the NCCA that "in its current form, it would be impossible to implement in Catholic schools under my patronage".

It is not intended that ERBE would replace existing religion teaching in denominational schools, but the Catholic Church is worried about the delivery of mixed messages to its pupils.

The NCCA reports notes "that a tension exists between the teaching of the patron's programme and the introduction of ERB and Ethics".

It states that some submissions from denominational perspectives suggested any challenges may be overcome, but "others were definitive, stating that ERB and Ethics as described in the proposals was not compatible with their vision for schools under their auspices".

Among those who made submissions backing ERBE were the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) and the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon.

Bodies, such as Atheist Ireland, and Equate, which promotes multi-denominational education, were also highly supportive, but questioned whether it would be implemented in religious-run schools.

Feedback from teachers and patrons in the multi-denominational sector suggested that their existing ethics/religious education programmes would be compatible with a State ­curriculum.

The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector recommended the development of an ERBE curriculum as a way of promoting inclusivity in an increasingly diverse society and equipping pupils for the modern world.

The idea was that ERBE would be taught in all ­primary schools to ensure that all ­children followed a coherent State programme in education in religion and ethics, as well as any faith-specific teaching

At the moment, the religion and/or ethics programmes available in primary schools depend on the patron body, and the NCCA found big variations in content and quality.

Guidelines issued to ­Catholic schools in 2014 allow for 18 of the 732 hours allocated to ­religion over eight years of schooling to be devoted to "other" religions.

The NCCA is not abandoning its work on ERBE, but the report refers to the "limiting factors within Irish education to the incorporation of a stand-alone curriculum in ERB and Ethics", highlighted in the consultation.

The report, which is published on the NCCA website, identifies two key challenges to the introduction of an ERBE curriculum.

One widely-acknowledged obstacle is the question of finding time in the ­primary school week to integrate new areas of learning. ­Curriculum overload is ­recognised as a problem in primary schools.

The NCCA is currently ­engaged in a separate review on how to reshape the time allocated for various subjects.

Even if the time issue is sorted, the legal protection enjoyed by denominational schools - coupled with the opposition from Church interests is an impediment.


The NCCA acknowledges that "in legislation, patrons have the right and duty to mediate the entire primary school curriculum with regard to the ethos of their schools".

It points to provisions of the Education Act, which are "potential barriers to the type of 'objective, critical and ­pluralist' approaches ­advocated in the proposals for the ERBE curriculum".

Analysis: Understanding other faiths would help students to strengthen their own beliefs

The report states that, for most of the curriculum, the ethos issue that may not present a challenge, but in matters relating to religion, belief and ethics, what is envisaged in a State curriculum may not coincide with the views of a patron.

Nonetheless, the NCCA says there is an appetite for the incorporation of ­opportunities for children to engage in the study of ­religions, belief systems and ethical decision-making. It says incorporating such ­learning across areas of a reshaped primary curriculum would give children opportunities to engage with ERBE "although not in the same way as the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism" seemed to envisage.

It suggests that opportunities may present themselves in subjects such as Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and Social Environmental and Scientific Education (SESE).

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News