State-run primary schools will no longer offer First Communion class

Minister Richard Bruton at a press briefing Photo: Mark Condren

Katherine Donnelly

State-run primary schools are taking formal religious instruction for pupils off the timetable.

The umbrella body for community national schools has decided that preparation for sacraments, such as First Communion, will no longer take place inside the school day.

The move by Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) represents a significant milestone in the long-running debate over the place of religion teaching in primary schools.

Education Minister Richard Bruton, who addressed the ETBI annual conference last night, said while his department had not been formally notified of the decision, he welcomed the direction in which the ETBI was moving.

Community national schools have been offering a hybrid approach to religious education - mainly a multi-belief programme for entire classes.

However, although practices varied within schools, time may also be allowed for instruction in particular faiths, if parents request it.

Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke

This involves segregating children and, in practice, it has mainly been requested by parents of Catholic children, who make up about half of the 4,000 pupils in 12 community national schools who have made such requests.

In this way, community national schools have differed from Educate Together, whose policy is not to provide time within the school day for religion.

ETBI has been engaged with separate discussions with representatives of Catholic bishops and the Department of Education, and has now decided to change its approach.

ETBI general secretary Michael Moriarty said based on a commitment to equality, it had taken the view that, "if everyone was to be treated equally, belief instruction had to be outside the school time".

The first community national school opened in 2008 and the State acted as the patron. It gave the Catholic Church a commitment to provide Catholic pupils with the same programme of religious education as offered in Catholic schools. Patronage of the schools has now transferred to local ETBs.

The new policy will be written into the rules of new community national schools, while existing ones will be encouraged to change their systems in consultation with parents.

Although there are only 12 community national schools, ETBI has ambitions to grow that number under the plan to increase diversity in the education sector through the transfer of Catholic schools.

Mr Bruton said surveys of parents would be undertaken later this year on the issue of school choice, with a view to exploring the possibility of "live" transfers of some Catholic schools to a different patron.

Meanwhile, ETBI president Pat Gilmore told Mr Bruton that more support was needed for island schools, if the island communities themselves are to survive.

There are five small second-level schools located on Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, and Inis Oírr off Galway, and Arranmore and Tory off Donegal. There are also 12 island primary schools.

Mr Gilmore said there was a proven link between appropriate school provision and the sustainability of island communities.

He referenced the recent decision by a family to leave Sherkin Island, off Cork, arising from the closure of its only primary school in 2016.