Primary schools to teach foreign languages as religion time cut under new proposals

New curriculum will put focus on wellbeing under biggest changes in more than 20 years

Primary schools pupils will spend less time learning religion under the biggest changes to the curriculum in more than 20 years.

Instead, there will be more time devoted to the core curriculum with a new focus on foreign languages and wellbeing.

The measures are contained in a new framework for the primary curriculum that was recently signed off by the State’s advisory body on the curriculum, The Irish Times has learned.

The 40-page blueprint, likely to be published by Minister for Education Norma Foley early in 2023, sets out the planned structure and content of the next curriculum for primary schools.


The report advises that the length of time spent teaching religion be cut by half an hour a week, from two-and-a-half hours a week to two hours.

In addition, religion would be supported by a new curriculum on “religion, ethical and multi-belief education”, to give pupils a wider perspective on beliefs.

Such a course has been mooted for several years, and in 2016 the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) developed a draft curriculum on a version of it, but it was shelved amid resistance from the Catholic Church to its introduction alongside faith formation classes.

Other key changes in the curriculum include:

* Foreign languages from third class onwards, with an hour a week on French, Spanish, German or whatever language is prioritised by the school;

* More “flexible time” – seven hours a month – to allow schools focus on priority areas of learning decided by individual schools such as maths, languages, art, etc.;

* A greater focus on wellbeing – three hours a week – such as belonging, resilience and physical activity;

* Emphasis on art with at least two hours a week on music, drama, dance, film and digital media;

* The replacement of individual subjects during the first half of primary school with broader “curriculum areas” to include maths/science/technology; languages; arts education; wellbeing; and social, personal and health education (SPHE);

* The introduction of key competencies that aim to link closely with Aistear – the preschool curriculum – and Junior Cycle at secondary school.

The framework is accompanied by a separate report that emphasises the need for resourcing and investment in continuous professional development to ensure it is fully implemented across all schools.

The most contentious aspects of the reform process to date has been the place of religion in the school day.

Some reformers are keen to move faith formation outside the school day altogether, but this has been resisted by faith-based schools.

The 1998 Education Act protects the right of schools to set aside time in each school day for subjects relating to the school’s ethos. The legislation does not, however, stipulate the amount of time to be allocated.

The framework allows schools to retain their focus on religious or denominational patron’s programmes, but for a shorter period of the school day.

The new blueprint was the subject of an extensive consultation process, overseen by NCCA. It will guide the development of a new curriculum that will shape how children learn over the coming decades.

The NCCA has envisaged the completion of the development of all curriculum area specifications by summer 2026.

The speed of the roll-out of the changes will be a matter for the then minister for education. It is expected that among the first children to be taught under the new curriculum will be born 2021 onwards.

Underlining the need to keep the curriculum up to date, the NCCA has pointed out that these children are due to begin their working lives in the 2050s and will retire in the late 2080s/early 2090s.

The changes, say policymakers, build on the strengths of the 1999 primary school curriculum, while responding to challenges, changing needs and priorities.

They argue that the changes aim to give increased agency and flexibility to schools in their role as “curriculum-makers”.

Sources familiar with the framework say it would promote stronger connections between children’s experiences in primary and their prior experiences in preschool, and with their later experiences in post-primary school.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent