Is there a place for God in the Irish classroom?
As Catholic Bishops defend their influence in schools, reformers wonder whether the curriculum has too much religion
The place of religion in schools is likely to be a hot issue for a new Education Minister when he or she takes up their post after the election.
With the Catholic Church set to give up control of many of its primary schools, there is likely to be controversy about how religion is taught.
At the recent Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, Labour's education spokesman Ruairi Quinn, one of the front-runners to be the next minister, hinted that too much time was being spent on religion in schools.
He asked whether it was time to reconsider the 2.5 hours spent on religion every week following Ireland's recent poor scores in literacy and maths in the international PISA survey.
Ireland spends the highest percentage of class time on religion in the OECD table of developed countries at both primary and second levels.
At second level, the amount of instruction time devoted to matters of the spirit is 9% -- three times the OECD average.
At primary level, 10% of class time is spent on religion, over double the amount in other OECD countries.
The Catholic Bishop of Achonry Brendan Kelly has dismissed the links made by Ruairi Quinn between these poor scores and the amount of time devoted to faith formation and Irish in schools as "spurious''.
At the recent launch of Catholic Schools Week, he said: "The suggestion seemed to be that it was time, perhaps, to drop Irish and religion from the curriculum, that somehow that was the remedy for the falling standards in maths and literacy."
The Bishop asked: "Are we to exclude the things that move our hearts most deeply and form the pillars of our Irish character and culture and conscience from our schools?''
At present 90% of primary schools in the country are under Catholic patronage. Pupils are given faith-formation classes during school hours. Parents have a right to withdraw children from religion classes, but this is not always practical.
The recently reported case of Martijn Leenheer, an irate father in Leitrim, who withdrew his son Finn from Drumlease Primary School when he discovered that he was reciting prayers, highlighted how religion can become a flashpoint.
The influence of the Catholic church on education was also raised in a recent inspection report by the Teaching Council of Mary Immaculate Teacher Training College in Limerick. It noted that the time allocated for religion in the college was four times that for science.
The Catholic Church has agreed that it will have to give up control of many of its primary schools. But there is still likely to be controversy about how religion will be taught in the new types of multi-denominational school that are likely to emerge.
The key question is: should children be given religious instruction inside school hours as part of the curriculum, or outside school hours?
The fast-growing Educate Together national schools have taken the second approach. In place of faith formation, students follow an Ethical Education Curriculum, where they learn about different religions and belief systems.
Under this system, religious instruction by specific churches takes place outside school hours.
A second type of multi-denominational primary school has emerged under the patronage of the Vocational Education Committees.
At five VEC Community National Schools, pupils follow a common religious programme -- "Goodness Me, Goodness You" ( nicknamed in some quarters "Goodness, Gracious Me").
The children are taught together most of the time, using stories, songs and poems from a number of religions.
At other times, children are divided into two groups. One group, which includes Christians and Muslims, say prayers to God. A second group, including Buddhists and Atheists, spends this time meditating on the lesson.
Many of the new primary schools that are opening across the country follow a multi-denominational model, but there are concerns that teacher training has failed to keep up with the pace of change.
At present all the teacher-training colleges apart from the online Hibernia College are organised along religious lines.
Until recently there was little or no training of teachers in education colleges for the ethical programmes in the fast-growing multi-denominational sector. But that is now changing.
For the first time ever, St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, is allowing trainee teachers to take a course entitled Ethics and Education as an alternative to Religious Education.
Emer Nowlan, head of education at Educate Together, said: "We welcome this historic development and look forward to working with the college to develop and deliver the course."
Michael Moriarty, General Secretary of Irish Vocational Education Association, said the training colleges need to adapt.
"We need to take into account the changing mores of society. When teachers are being trained, there needs to be a much more integrated approach so that they are prepared for different types of schools.''
A survey by the INTO almost a decade ago showed that only 36% of primary teachers were in favour of continuing with denominational training of teachers while 46% were against.