When Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn makes comments regarding cutting religious education (RE) time in order to teach more maths, it might seem to be only a matter of concern for parents for whom religion is an important matter.
If, however, it illustrates the Minister for Education’s understanding of the educational process, it becomes a much wider issue.
An integrated curriculum is central to the approach in primary schools – that is, subjects do not reside in isolated boxes, but instead meaningful connections are made between them.
The primary school curriculum states: “As they mature, integration gives children’s learning a broader and richer perspective, emphasises the interconnectedness of knowledge and ideas and reinforces the learning process.”
In a number of recent curriculum reviews, good practice such as using Gaeilge during PE is praised. It does not seem to have occurred to the Minister that literacy could be enhanced during RE, or that art or music can be very easily integrated into RE time.
He expresses great unease that more time is given to RE during years of sacramental preparation. Would similar unease be expressed if pupils were preparing for a school play or for an important final?
These are times of communal celebration that are remembered long after individual lessons have faded into a blur. All of them strengthen links with the community.
I am a second-level teacher, but primary teachers tell me that one of the lovely things about preparing children for sacraments is how grateful and appreciative parents are for the hard work that goes into preparing beautiful, meaningful celebrations.
This is not the first time the Minister has singled out religious education. He talks about time for religious education being above the European average. True. What he does not mention is that exactly the same allocation of time for RE happens in Northern Ireland's primary schools.
The late Seán Flynn, a skilled and dedicated journalist whose death after an illness courageously borne has caused great grief to family, friends and colleagues, wrote about Northern Ireland becoming the new Finland.
He said: “For years we have looked north to Finland for education’s promised land. But the latest international rankings for primary schools suggest the promised land may actually be up the road.
“Northern Ireland is among the elite performers in both reading and maths, where it significantly outperformed the Republic.”
In a recent international survey, (TIMSS/PIRLS for primary schools), in both literacy and numeracy, Northern Ireland comes first in Europe in maths and second in primary reading.
Yet the North’s schools spend the same amount of time as we do on RE. You can see how it is holding them back.
The difference is that Northern Ireland has invested in education. Teachers who take on additional roles such as assessment or special needs are still paid extra, unlike in the Republic, where similar posts have been drastically cut.
Northern Ireland's schools have modern ICT. There are teaching assistants in the classrooms.
In the Republic, there has been an 11 per cent cut in funding per pupil. Traveller education
and English as a second language supports have been cut. One-to-one teaching hours for children with disabilities such as autism have been cut.
Teachers are increasingly pressurised, and according to 2011 figures, Ireland has the second most crowded classes in the EU, with more than 100,000 children in classes of 30 or more.
Yet despite this, the chief inspector’s report in 2013 states: “Primary schools were found to be managing their pupils well and the vast majority of parents were happy with their child’s school.”
The local primary school is one of the few institutions held in genuine esteem in Ireland. The majority of Irish parents, although perhaps not heading out to church every Sunday, do not object to religious education in their schools, and many value it highly.
Ireland is somewhat unusual internationally. The decline in attending religious services has not marked a corresponding decline in belief in God, or a sense of the spiritual.
In the European Court of Human Rights decision regarding Louise O’Keefe, a woman of unbelievable courage, it was made clear in paragraph 150 that the problem is not with our current patronage system in schools, but with a State that somehow did not see it as its responsibility to protect children.
The Church failed children shamefully, too, but it has made systematic positive changes in child protection, to the extent that the State now lags far behind, especially in the HSE.
Faith-based schools, including Catholic schools, make valuable contributions to society . According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, Catholic primary schools are “more likely” to have children from working-class backgrounds and to include the Traveller community. “The widest spread of nationalities was evident in Catholic schools.”
Everyone agrees there needs to be diversity of school provision, to respect the rights of parents and children. But in a genuinely pluralist society, there would also be recognition of all that Catholic and other faith-based schools contribute, rather than apparently regarding them as some kind of problem to be solved.