Major changes to primary school day proposed

School boards may be allowed to decide how much time is spent teaching religion

Traditional subjects may be removed from the initial years of primary schooling. Photograph: David Sleator

Traditional subjects may be removed from the initial years of primary schooling. Photograph: David Sleator


Major changes to the time given to teaching subjects during the school day at primary level will be proposed in a report to be published next month.

Under the proposals, traditional subjects may be replaced by “areas of learning” during the initial years of primary schooling aimed at boosting the transition from pre-school. Traditional subjects would be introduced for children in later years in primary school.

Schools may also be required to prioritise teaching time for State-backed curriculum in later years, such as maths, Irish and English.

Individuals school boards of management would be left to decide how much “discretionary time” they wish to dedicate to faith formation outside of these core subjects.

The proposals are contained in a report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on the structure and time allocation as part of a redeveloped primary curriculum.

The report is due to be published soon, along with a related report on the plans to introduce a “religion, beliefs and ethics” class to primary schools.

Religions and beliefs

The council originally envisaged that the proposed curriculum – which focuses on learning about the major forms of religions and beliefs of people around the world – would be taught as a separate subject.

However, a consultation process about the subject attracted fears that they could threaten faith-based classes or swamp an already crowded school curriculum. As a result, the report is understood to propose that these classes could be incorporated into the wider core curriculum rather than treated as a separate subject.

For instance, sources say elements of beliefs and ethics could link into existing classes in history, geography and social, personal and health education.

The changes around core curriculum and discretionary time are likely to attract significant attention.

If the religion, beliefs and ethics classes are incorporated into the core curriculum, as planned, multidenominational schools may find they have little need for their own patrons’ programmes.

This is because much of this area will overlap with patrons’ programmes in multidenominational schools run by patrons such as Educate Together and the Education and Training Board.

This would give them greater flexibility to use their discretionary time to give extra emphasis to literacy and numeracy or extra-curricular activities such as coding.


At present most primary schools typically spend up to 2½ hours teaching religion – or faith formation – each week.

The Education Act (1998) protects the right of schools to set aside reasonable time in each school day for subjects relating to the school’s ethos, such as faith formation.

However, it does not specify how much time should be set aside for this subject, allowing for flexibility on the part of schools.

A survey of almost 600 principals published earlier this year found that eight out of 10 primary school principals believe less time should be spent on teaching religion in the classroom.