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Neil O'Callaghan: Schools too focused on religion and Irish

THE latest OECD 'Education at a Glance' statistics report gives us a good opportunity to examine Ireland's primary school curriculum in relief against the rest of the developed world.

The more you look at the report, the more it raises some telling questions about whether we are doing a good job of equipping our children for life outside of school, not just for when they leave but on a day-to-day basis.

On a weekly basis we teach just one hour of science as against 2.5 hours of religion. And so much of third class is given over to preparation for First Communion and then sixth to Confirmation, that even this statistic is skewed upwards in favour of religion.

Although the majority of our schools are Catholic and thus sign up for the whole religious packet, there are ever fewer people attending Mass or declaring themselves as followers of the Church of Rome. Surely we can start cutting back on some of the time spent on religion in general and the preparation for these rites.

But it's not just science that is the only practical subject that could benefit from a few hours re-allocated from within the traditional curriculum.

Walk into any Irish primary school and you'll be blinded by the number of signs and posters in the Irish language.

It seems that our schools bear the responsibility of being the last bastions of the Irish language outside of the Gaeltacht and government offices. Again, I feel too much time is given over to Irish and not enough to maths where our pupils consistently struggle. Ireland needs to become more outward-looking and less obsessed with losing its identity.

Modern languages play a key role in the building of our understanding of not just the markets we crave but of the people themselves that we wish to do business with.

In my experience as a teacher of both French and German, a grounding in these two languages, as well as Spanish and Italian, makes all the difference to pupils arriving in post-primary school.

In what can only be described as short-sighted and a step backwards, last year Ruairi Quinn abolished the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative.

Look it up on the internet and you'll see how those backing its inception in 1998 described this "exciting" project operating through "drama, songs and games". In 2012 it appears we no longer need to teach modern languages at primary level to "enhance self-esteem and confidence and enhance cultural awareness".

Personally, having taught English at primary level in Germany to children, aged 10, during the 1990s, I can vouch for the receptiveness of learners at this age.

Starting with traditional English rhymes, we progressed to material I actually knew the words to, like Oasis and Blur!

As I walked in the door they would automatically strike up "He lives in a house, a very big house in the country!"

What impressed me most was that these children were not just comfortable middle-class Germans, but some who hailed from Croatia, Russia, Turkey and Bosnia too, and were already struggling with German.

What they excelled in most of all was role-playing Mr Smith serving Mrs Jones in the grocery shop or in a restaurant . . . because it was fun and meaningful.

Was the Irish initiative even implemented properly? Sadly, when queried on the initiative itself, primary teachers often admitted that they couldn't fit in the extra period to teach a modern language such was the burden of the regular curriculum.

Once it's seen as "extra" to the established curriculum of religion, maths, English and Irish, any innovation is doomed.

Neil O'Callaghan is a German and French teacher

Irish Independent