Religious Education in Irish Primary Schools - The Irish Times - November 2015

Religious education is allocated 2.5 hours per week in Irish primary schools. Considering that SESE (History, Geography and Science) gets a total of three hours per week, that’s a significant amount of time. Yet there is currently no national curriculum for religious education at primary level. Instead the subject’s provision has been left entirely up to the patron bodies, 96 per cent of whom are religious denominations.

This month, however, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) begins a long-awaited consultation to develop a curriculum for Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics. This was a recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, a 2012 report that highlighted several areas of concern in the primary sector.

One stems from the fact that our education system claims to cater for all children's moral and spiritual development yet, at the same time, parents have a constitutional right to remove their children from religious education (R.E.).

That allows some students to pass through primary schooling without receiving any education in ethics and religious beliefs, potentially creating a gap in their learning. It’s too early to tell how the NCCA will address that gap but whatever policy it produces will supplement, rather than replace, existing R.E. programmes within schools.

“I think there are thorny issues that will need to be ironed out around that,” says Anne Hession, a lecturer in R.E. at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. “The religious education programmes of denominational schools come from a particular perspective and obviously you can’t violate the ethos of those schools, so the question will be how they integrate any new ethics programme or curriculum into what they're doing.”

In the meantime, there are signs elsewhere that the nature of religious education in Ireland is changing. Earlier this year, Hession wrote the first ever R.E. curriculum for Catholic preschools and primary schools, which was approved by the Irish Episcopal Conference. The first programme to apply it is the Grow in Love series, introduced to junior and senior infants in September, which will be rolled out over the next four years. The last time Catholic primary schools had a new catechetical programme was 1996, when the Alive-O series was launched.

“Nobody thought [Alive-O] would have lasted so long but everyone agreed that it's outdated and not fit for purpose for much longer,” says Hession, explaining that the new curriculum features updated cultural references and greater inter-religious learning. “It was badly needed to bring some clarity into what we are doing in religious education and what we’re trying to achieve at each level.”

But will it be enough to cater for an educational landscape that has changed immeasurably over the last 20 years? Alternative models of R.E., such as the multi-belief programme at Community National Schools and the Educate Together ethical curriculum, may comprise a small minority but they also reflect an appetite for something different – not just among parents, but among teachers too.

“I think an emerging issue is the capacity of teachers to teach Catholic religious education in terms of not having faith or not having developed Christian spirituality themselves,” says Hession, “as well as simply not having the resources to teach a faith-based religious education curriculum. That’s something I think is going to have to be faced in the years to come.”

Finding a teacher to speak candidly about this can be difficult. Several contacted for this article were reluctant to comment, even off the record. Sarah, a teacher at a Catholic primary school in Wicklow, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

She says her school is diverse and “very much takes a step back” when it comes to religion – to the point that she has not taught R.E. once this year. Even still, none of her pupils has ever opted out of religion, including Muslims, and she recalls just two occasions where a parent expressed reservations about faith formation at the school.

“I wouldn’t know of anybody that actually teaches the allocated requirement [for R.E.],” she says. “Obviously, you’ll never find that out because it’s not something that can be said. But what’s written on paper isn’t what’s actually practised. I think it depends on whether you are a practising Catholic. I’m not and I don’t see any need for faith formation in schools, therefore I don’t make any time for it.” Asked what she does when diocesan advisers visit the school, Sarah replies: “You pretend.”

Aoife, another teacher who would only speak anonymously, teaches second class at a Catholic school in Dublin, where she has worked for decades. She currently has many non-national pupils, including Buddhists and Russian Orthodox Christians, who remain in their places for R.E. and absorb the lesson. In preparation for Communion, she says, they will sit at the back of the church doing other activities like knitting or puzzles unsupervised. Aoife is aware of just one couple in the last six years who objected to religious instruction at the school.

This is not an isolated case. One teacher at a girls’ school in south Dublin said that most children of non-Catholic backgrounds are not only involved in sacramental preparation, but will attend Communion and take part in photos (often wearing clothing typical of their faith tradition).

“I would never do the prescribed two-and-a-half hours,” says Aoife. “I would hit at it in fits and starts, knowing it’s kind of exclusive unless I make extra effort the night before to skirt around what’s relevant. I don’t see the point otherwise. Other areas of the curriculum are suffering and I prefer to give my time to literacy and maths.”

Aoife tailors her R.E. lessons to focus on broad themes, such as school spirit and building friendships, until the run-up to Communion. She describes the sacramental preparation as a waste of precious time and believes most children won’t attend mass again until making their Confirmation.

“I sometimes wonder why teachers are doing it at all. I’m beginning to see now, having been reared as Catholic myself, that it’s outside my brief. Catholicism has changed since I was at school and the vast majority of children don’t practise it, so you’d wonder why teachers are trying to do what parents are not doing. It’s a huge challenge but anything that’s brought on board to improve the present situation would be very welcome.”

A spokesman for the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation says that teachers agree as part of their duties to teach the programmes and curricula in place at a particular school, which may include faith formation. However, the organisation did inform the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism that teachers increasingly report being responsible for faith formation that is not actively supported by family or the faith community, placing an unfair burden of responsibility on their work.

“I know there’s no concrete research on this but, anecdotally, it would appear that religious education is piecemeal at best,” says Dr Gerry O'Connell, who lectures in R.E. at Dublin’s Marino Institute of Education. “Though I would always question whether the aim of the teacher in not doing it is to be inclusive.”

The boundaries between religious education and faith formation, O’Connell says, are difficult to parse. Educating children spiritually doesn’t only happen in R.E., he explains. It can happen, for example, in working with children around the future of the planet, the school environment and how we treat others: stuff that teachers do every day. Faith formation, on the other hand, is the focus of the home and the parish.

“I think from people’s own experience of religious education in schools, they know that faith formation is not something that happens automatically. It may be enmeshed in a school’s religious education but it’s not something that happens there. I think people sometimes get caught up in that. It’s a terrible burden that’s placed on Irish teachers to imagine, given the skill levels they have for teaching religious education, that in some magical way they can also inflict some kind of faith formation on children who don’t wish to avail of that.”

O’Connell prefers not to speculate on what a national ERB and Ethics curriculum may look like but he is concerned about how it will fit into an already packed programme. He feels people are constantly proposing solutions based on what they see in other societies or in terms of their own philosophical standpoints. But he doesn’t detect much listening: something he believes educators need to be doing now more than ever.

“My question the whole time is, ‘Whose ethics will they be?’ Will the children be consulted? Or is it a question of an adult projection put into primary schools? The danger with ERB and Ethics is that we’re going to teach children things we want them to know when they’re 20, so I think it’s an area we need to take care with. And that care should be for the children.”