Fears over “curriculum overload” have emerged as one of the key concerns in a consultation process over controversial plans to introduce classes about religion into primary schools.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the State's advisory body on education, has received a record-breaking volume of responses from parents, teachers and school bodies over new religion, beliefs and ethics classes.
The planned classes would be separate to existing faith-based classes in denominational schools, which typically take up about half an hour of the school day. It is intended the curriculum would focus on learning about the major forms of religions, traditions and views of people around the world, including secular beliefs.
While the NCCA plans have been broadly welcomed by many, they have also drawn criticism from some who fear they will threaten faith-based classes or swamp an already crowded school curriculum.
Some 2,200 individuals responded to an online questionnaire by the time the six-month consultation period elapsed in recent days, while there have been another 150 written submissions.
By contrast, a typical NCCA consultation process tends to attract a few hundred responses.
Patrick Sullivan, director-primary at the NCCA, said the submissions yielded a broad spectrum of views .
“One thing which has come out of the consultation is a view that what’s needed is something that is compatible with the Irish education system and which will result in meaningful change in the classroom, ” he said.
The council is to engage outside experts to help analyse and collate the submissions and a formal report on the consultation process is due out before the summer.
In its submission, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation welcomes the proposals but flags concerns over an “overloaded curriculum” and potential tension between faith-based classes and the State curriculum.
“The INTO is adamant that there is no room in the current curriculum for additional content or subjects,” its submission states. “It is only by reducing the content of the current primary school curriculum that time will be available for the inclusion of education about religions and beliefs.”
The status and time allocated to patrons’ programmes should be considered in the context of the overall review of the curriculum, it states.
In a highly critical submission, a group of six academics affiliated to teacher-training institutes – including Prof Eamonn Conway of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick – says the proposals would undermine faith schools' religious instruction and characteristic spirit. "On the basis of our analysis we cannot recommend to the patrons of faith-based schools the introduction of this curriculum in any of the ways suggested by the NCCA."
The Church of Ireland Board of Education draft submission also raises concern over the potential for an overloaded curriculum and duplication with other subjects.
Atheist Ireland says parents' right to exempt their children from the course should be recognised and guaranteed.