Do teachers really need a certificate in religious studies to teach at primary?

With 95 per cent of schools under religious control, some argue the requirement amounts to State-sponsored discrimination

Moves to changes how religion is taught in primary schools have met with resistance from many Catholic groups, who fear it will undermine the ethos of their schools. Photograph: iStock

Should primary teachers only be permitted to teach in the classroom if they pass a certificate in religious studies?

With the majority of schools under religious patronage, State-funded teacher-training courses advise students that taking the certificate – known as the CRS – is needed to boost their chances of getting a job.

Catholic school management boards, for example – which represent 90 per cent of schools – typically require the CRS as a condition of employment.

The content of the certificate in this instance is described as offering knowledge and skills for communicating the Catholic faith to children at primary school in accordance with the requirements of Irish bishops.


Many Church of Ireland schools also seek to ensure prospective teachers have the Protestant version of the certificate.

But at a time when the country is rapidly becoming more diverse, some critics say these requirements are turning members of minority faiths or atheists away from the teaching profession.

A study published by NUI Galway’s school of education last month examined attitudes towards religion among more than 1,000 teaching entrants and applicants from an anonymous survey in 2014.

It found the majority identified as Catholic (90 per cent), a rate higher than the general population at the time (78 per cent).

However, when asked about their beliefs, one-third of respondents said they rarely or never practised their religion or attended religious services.

On the issue of teaching religion, most respondents said they were strongly in favour of teaching children about all faiths, world views and religions, with less support for faith-formation-style religious instruction, even among Catholic respondents.

Lead author of the study Dr Manuela Heinz said the finding raised questions on the experiences of non-religious teachers in schools.

“Considering that only 58 per cent of our respondents considered themselves to be ‘a religious person’, we need to ask what about the others? What experiences await them as they pursue careers as primary teachers?” she asked.


Groups such as Atheist Ireland see the requirement for the CRS as a form of discrimination.

"This requirement means atheists and members of minority faiths have difficulty in accessing the teaching profession, as their chances of getting a job are restricted," says Jane Donnelly, human rights officer with Atheist Ireland. "This is religious discrimination, and a breach of human rights."

She says while our schools are becoming more diverse, with children from many belief backgrounds, children cannot see that diversity and inclusion reflected in their teachers.

“In practice, some teachers have to hide their beliefs in order to get work. Some don’t even have that option, as they are openly members of a minority faith. We have to move away from this nod-and-wink approach to dealing with public affairs.”

Catholic groups, however, see these requirements in a much different light.

While the certificate enables teachers to teach the Catholic faith, it also explores issues around inter-culturalism, religious diversity and the importance of promoting respect for all pupils.

They see the religious education programme as a subject that is taught in a manner that complements other curricular areas, such as history, geography, art and musics.

“In this way, the religious education programme in Catholic schools plays a pivotal role in the integration of all subjects in the primary school curriculum by promoting the holistic development of pupils: physical; ethical; spiritual; religious,” according to a document produced by the Irish Bishop’s Conference.

The provision of patrons’ programmes or faith formation is also protected under legislation.

The 1998 Education Act, for example, protects the right of faith-based schools to set aside time in each school day for subjects relating to the school’s ethos. This is typically about 30 minutes a day.

Moves to changes how religion is taught in primary schools have met with resistance from many Catholic groups, who fear it will undermine the ethos of their schools.

A new subject on world religions and ethics in primary schools was watered down in the face of concerns it could challenge the ethos of denominational schools. Instead, policymakers said the area of learning will be incorporated into the wider primary school curriculum rather than as a separate subject.

The change was seen as a victory for religious groups and Catholic bishops, who are opposed to the subject on the basis it could undermine faith-based education and swamp an overloaded school curriculum.

Similarly, Catholic groups have expressed concern that proposed reforms to the primary curriculum could “undermine and downgrade” religion in schools.

Under proposals being considered by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, patrons' programmes would no longer feature as part of the State's core curriculum at primary level.

Instead, schools would have the freedom to decide how much time they wish to spend on teaching faith-formation or patrons’ programmes during “flexible time”.

The debate looks set to continue. In the meantime, there are relatively few options for teachers who feel they cannot sign up for a certificate in religious studies.

Educate Together, a network of 82 primary schools of about 3,200 nationally, does not require a certificate in religious studies

DCU, along with offering a certificate in religious studies, also provides a certificate in “ethical and multi-denominational education” for such schools.

A spokesman for Educate Together said it expected demand for this approach to grow over the coming years in line with demand for “equality-based education”.

Teachers are happy, because the vast majority are too conservative to change

One teacher who spoke to The Irish Times on the basis of anonymity said the certificate in religious studies (CRS) weighs heavily on trainee teachers who are non-religious.

“Having trained in the UK, it was not a requirement to do the CRS as part of my course. I was fortunate enough that the school I was employed in did not look for the certificate despite it being a Catholic school. I trained in 2008 in the UK where there is little emphasis put on religion.

“Catholic schools in Ireland are most certainly under the grip of the church. If this wasn’t the case I would be able to put my name to these comments.

“Promotion opportunities for teachers without the CRS are few and far between. Most schools will look for the CRS when hiring a principal. This is something that I could see myself doing but because of the necessity to do the CRS I will be ruled out of the vast majority of jobs that arise.

“I do think the CRS is something that puts off students who aren’t from a Catholic background or weren’t born in Ireland, which is why teachers are predominantly white and Irish.

“However, the reasons for teachers from more diverse backgrounds not coming forward are much more complicated than just the CRS.

“As an atheist teacher in a Catholic school, it is most definitely an issue for me. Teaching, although it is slowly changing, is dominated by white, Catholic, middle-class women. This is in no way reflective of society as a whole. The CRS plays a part, as does the Gaeilge requirement.

“Teachers of different faiths and none are made to feel less valued and dissenters must be careful where they speak and what they say.

“Laissez-faire Catholics are happy with the current situation because it requires them to do nothing. Teachers are happy because the vast majority are too conservative to change. With such a conservative workforce and such ‘apathetic customers’, I see nothing changing anytime soon.”