Children who opt out of religion in primary are denied teaching for 129 full school days

It is time for church bodies to address religious teaching time in our schools

“It is time for church bodies to address the incongruity of teaching time in our schools.” Photograph: iStock

“It is time for church bodies to address the incongruity of teaching time in our schools.” Photograph: iStock


More than 30 years ago, I taught third class in a Cork city boys’ school.

The local priest was a frequent visitor to the classroom and liked to engage with the class on matters catechetic.

On one such visit, his focus was on praying loudly and with passion.

He invited the class to join him in a decade of the rosary but stopped after the Our Father and chastised the boys for their lack of volume and urged them to raise the roof with 10 Hail Marys.

While the rafters remained firmly attached to the struts, a single voice suddenly boomed above all others as one child, Jules, attempted to let the Mardyke know how blessed was the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

The priest was suitably impressed and commended Jules for the power of his prayer.

“You are a great boy!” he told Jules, who replied in a proud Cockney accent: “Yes, thank you, Father. And I’m not even a Caffolick!”

Jules was one of many children I taught who opted out of religion classes but obviously had absorbed much of what was happening in the classroom around him.

There is no way of gauging the effect on a child, included in a classroom but excluded from what is being taught.

I recently came across a child who put her hands to her ears any time religion class started.

Her parents had jokingly told her to do this but underestimated how literal an attentive five-year-old can be. Clearly, children undeservedly have their difference exposed.

The welcome that schools extend on admission bears a caveat of conditional consent to accepting the school ethos and agreeing to opt out.

School’s patronage

Fundamentally, if parents’ beliefs do not meet those of the single faith on which the school’s patronage is based, then the child will be excluded from teacher-time for part of each school day.

In concluding its 2012 report, the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism recommended the divestment from church to community patronage for primary schools on a phased and incremental basis.

With 96 per cent of all primary schools patronised by a single religion, the forum stated that it would be inadvisable to recommend “a big bang radical upheaval” and cautiously called for a softly, softly approach.

Little did the authors of the report realise that eight school years later, the rate of divesting could be measured by a junior infant on one hand with a spare thumb to suck, with single-faith school patronage continuing on a dominant 96th percentile.

Admission policies to these schools invariably claim to be welcoming to children of all faiths and none.

The welcome mat is rolled out for all children, but for those whose parents do not wish them to receive religious instruction it reads “welcome but . . .”.

The “but” is the opt-out, where those children must sit out religion class. While the class teacher works with his/her class in fulfilling the faith (including a majority who do not practise this faith with their families outside of the school), the opt-outs sit down the back of the class and count down the 30 minutes while colouring in yet another dinosaur.

In my 20 years as a principal of a Catholic school, parents acquiesced to this mono-ethos system without question.

The only times issues arose might have been at time of First Communion and Confirmation, when rehearsals impinged hugely on the integrity of the school timetable, with their children more clearly left on the outside.

However, the daily teaching of religion directly affects this integrity of the school timetable.

Children who opt out are denied teaching for half an hour every day. With 1,464 days in the eight-year primary school cycle, this amounts to 129 full school days.

Colouring dinosaurs

This equates to 26 full school weeks in a child’s primary school career. That’s a lot of time for colouring dinosaurs.

Surely this time would be better spent being helping all our children to “know about and understand the cultural heritage of the major forms of religion, beliefs, traditions and world views which have been embraced by humankind”.

These are the aims of the Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) programme proposed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) as part of its new primary school curriculum

The ethics section of this ERB programme aims to create in the child “the promotion of a personal commitment to the dignity and freedom of all human beings” and stresses the importance of human rights, justice and service of the common good.

The NCCA proposal focuses on the theist, non-theist and secular beliefs and avoids the nurture of one religion or belief system. It is a programme that will include all children, with no child losing out on teacher time.

The introduction of ERB and ethics may meet with resistance from patrons of Church-run schools, who wish to retain their current monopoly of religious instruction time. Such retention appears as iniquitous as it is segregationist.

It is time for church bodies to seriously address the incongruity of its ownership of religious teaching time in our schools.

It is also time for them to take their hands down from their ears and address the negligible rate of divestment and to allow all children to be included to their entitlement of the full school day. It is time for all to opt in.

Peter Gunning is a writer and former primary school principal