EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has questioned the amount of time spent teaching children religion in primary schools at the expense of science and physical education (PE).
He told Catholic primary school managers that it was time for a public discussion on the issue.
Although it is not the first time the minister has expressed strong views on the subject, it is the first time he has raised it formally.
Department of Education rules require primary schools to devote 30 minutes a day – twoand- a-half-hours a week – to religion, compared with 60 minutes a week for science and PE.
Sacraments A recent Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) survey found over 70pc of teachers were spending more than the required time on religion.
The extra time usually goes on preparing children for sacraments such as First Communion and Confirmation.
But Mr Quinn asked: "Can we really afford to continue providing a mere 60 minutes, per week on scientific instruction or, for that matter, 60 minutes per week of PE?" He suggested that preparation for the sacraments could take place in the parish, outside school hours.
The minister was speaking at the Catholic Primary School Managers Association (CPSMA) annual conference, where the suggestion was not wellreceived.
CPSMA vice chairperson Fr Denis McNelis, said they were happy to talk about the timing and method of the teaching of religion, but "I think there would be widespread disapproval on the part of parents and most teachers if we were to go down the road of removing entirely sacramental preparation from the school".
Irish primary pupils spend 4pc of their time on science – half the international average – and 10pc on religion, more than double the global norm.
The recommended minimum one hour a week for PE is the lowest of 30 EU countries.
The minister told reporters later that while he had no current plans for changes to existing arrangements, he insisted the question he was posing was not "rhetorical". He added science was important and "it all starts in primary".