Just 1 per cent of pupils in Catholic schools are opting out of religious classes, according to research conducted by bishops and school managers.
The findings are contained in submissions to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) on plans for a new curriculum on various religious beliefs in primary schools.
The vast majority of submissions from Catholic groups are hostile to the idea of a “religion, beliefs and ethics” course which, they argue, could undermine faith-based education and swamp an overloaded school curriculum.
The NCCA is due to issue a report on the submissions shortly, along with proposed changes to the structure and time of the primary school day.
In his submission, Denis Nulty, the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, says a tiny minority of parents withdraw their children from the patron's programme of religious education. "This is a very small group: 1.2 per cent in a recent survey conducted by our diocesan education office," he writes.
While he says there is a need to find an appropriate way to engage these children, he adds: “I remain convinced that the proposed education about religions and beliefs (ERB) and ethics is not the approach required for those children in faith-based schools.”
In its submission, the Catholic Primary School Managers’ Association – which supports more than 2,800 primary schools – says the number of students seeking to opt out of religious education in Catholic schools is “relatively small” and these pupils are willingly accommodated.
By contrast, it says the introduction of the proposed curriculum would undermine the characteristic spirit of schools, and cause a rise in the number of Catholic parents opting out of the new subject.
In another submission, the diocesan advisers to the Archdiocese of Dublin’s education secretariat warn that the planned course could lead to “serious confusion among children as young as four, who are in the initial stages of faith formation”.
They add that a national curriculum, which explores different faiths and beliefs without promoting one faith perspective above another, is “totally incompatible with the mission, the vision and the ethos of a Catholic school”.
In all, the NCCA received more than 170 submissions over the proposed curriculum.
The council originally envisaged that the proposed curriculum could be taught as a separate subject.
The depth of opposition to the proposals means it is likely they will be incorporated into the wider core curriculum.
However, there is still support for the proposals from a range of quarters. While the Church of Ireland General Synod's board of education submission expresses some reservations, it adds that its board is of the view that conceptually the proposed subject contains "much that is positive".
“Clearly, the NCCA has the child at the centre of its conceptualisation of this proposed curriculum and the board commends the NCCA in this regard,” the board’s submission states.
The management group for Community National Schools – a new form of primary school under the patronage of the Education and Training Boards – is also broadly positive.
It “applauds the aspirations and breadth of vision” of the new curriculum, but added that parents should be given greater prominence to the development of the curriculum.
Jones Irwin, a lecturer in philosophy of education at St Patrick's College, Dublin City University, said work done on the proposals was "excellent and highly-needed in our primary schools".
He said the patronage model of Irish schools called for a “patient and ground-level implementation policy” which would likely take considerable time and effort.