Let's encourage children to share ideas about world religions
What should children learn at school? How long should they spend learning it? And for what purpose? These are the questions that underpin debates about curriculum across the world. In Ireland, these debates tend to be dominated by the post-primary sector and debates about primary curriculum are rarer, or at least, much quieter.
In recent years, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has contributed significantly to those debates, and to those questions. The development of Aistear - the early childhood curriculum framework, sets a new direction for the experiences of children in infant classrooms.
The recently completed integrated language curriculum breaks new ground in connecting children's language learning across their first, second and other language contexts. The proposed new curriculum in Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and ethics programme breaks further new ground in primary education.
Remarkably, there has never been a State curriculum in the areas of religions, beliefs or ethics for children attending primary schools.
Currently, religious and ethical education is provided by the patron's programme of the school, designed to underpin the ethos of these schools and which usually involves teaching from a faith-based perspective.
This teaching is entirely appropriate for children who practise and adhere to the same religion as the school patron. However, concern has been expressed for children of a different religion or belief background to that of the school, who may miss out on valuable learning in religions, beliefs and ethics.
The development of an ERB and ethics curriculum is intended to be for all children attending all primary schools. As such, it can be argued that the development and teaching of the proposed curriculum should be from an objective, critical and pluralist perspective as outlined in the Toledo guidelines on teaching about religions and beliefs in public schools.
In Irish primary schools, a child's sense of their identity and belonging is nurtured through experiential learning, the creation of inclusive school environments and positive relationships between the child and their teacher. Such learning can already take place in subjects such as social, personal and health education (SPHE), drama, the patrons' programmes and indeed across elements of the entire primary curriculum.
However, the development of an ERB and ethics curriculum will ensure that every child has access to structured, coherent and incremental learning in this area, and will support teachers and schools in the good practices that already take place in our primary schools.
In ERB and ethics, children can share ideas about the world, promoting relationships and friendships with those of different belief backgrounds. Through a child's reflection on their own beliefs and values, and on those of others, they can grow in respect for themselves and others.
The unique composition of Ireland's primary sector, coupled with current debates about school patronage, gives rise to additional sensitivities over and above the general cut and thrust of debates about curriculum change in Ireland. Furthermore, the question of time allocation for a new component of the primary school curriculum is an important consideration.
Teachers have described the curriculum as "overloaded", and have expressed concern for the quality of children's learning and engagement at school due to the constraints of time allocation in the primary curriculum.
The current guidelines on time allocation for teaching across the curriculum are outlined on a weekly basis.
Internationally, there are many examples of systems that take a different approach, from recommendations by month or by term, or even by school year, leaving flexibility to schools to make the daily and weekly decisions.
The NCCA's advice on time allocation across the entire primary school curriculum, including ERB and ethics, will be made to the Minister for Education and Skills in 2016.
While remaining mindful of such debates and considerations, it is important to focus on the central questions for curriculum development of what should children learn, and for what purpose. These questions are the focus of the consultation for the proposed ERB and ethics curriculum.
The consultation on the proposals for the proposed curriculum will run from autumn to spring 2016.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is actively seeking contributions from individuals and groups through a number of consultation formats. Information on the proposals and how you can contribute can be found at www.ncca.ie/consultation/erbe
Patrick Sullivan is director of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment