Pupils do not want to be separated for religious education

Study recommends end to belief-specific teaching in Community National Schools

A new study on religious education has found young students do not want to be separated from each other according to faith.

The research conducted by Trinity College Dublin (TCD) examined the attitudes of pupils, teachers and principals at Ireland's Community National Schools.

It found pupils preferred a “whole-classroom” approach where they learn alongside all classmates as opposed to being separated on a “belief-specific” basis.

Multi-denominational Community National Schools are part of the reconfiguration process of Catholic schools.


There are currently 11 in the country, each aiming to provide equal and inclusive education to children from all faiths.

Last April, their junior programme (ages four to nine) which included an element of “belief-specific” teaching with children separated into four groups – Catholic, Christian, Muslim and other – was suspended in most schools.

The approach is due to be reviewed in September 2017 by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) following concerns raised by principals, teachers and parents.

Perceived privileging

As well as finding that children preferred to learn together, the TCD research found sacramental preparation, offered to varying degrees by the individual schools, has led to a perceived privileging of Catholic students over others.

Many teachers felt inadequately prepared to deliver parts of the curriculum and lacked confidence in culturally and religiously diverse classrooms, the report said.

Multi-ethnic friendships were widely reported throughout all schools and belief groups, based more on common interests than religious or ethnic backgrounds.

One child named Nelinho told researchers he wanted the class to learn together “because we talk about other religions, we don’t talk about our own religions, stuff we already know”.

“We actually want to learn stuff that’s new and talk about different religions and how they celebrate.”

The study recommends an end to the belief-specific teaching still practised in two of the Community National Schools.

Teacher training

As regards sacramental preparation, Prof Daniel Faas at TCD's department of sociology said parents and parish priests should play a greater role.

Teacher training should include more intercultural and multi-faith training to equip teachers to work in any type of primary school, he said.

The representative body for Education and Training Boards (ETBs), which has taken over governance of the Community National Schools since last year, has welcomed the report.

Séamus Conboy, ETB Ireland’s primary development officer, said the majority of Community Nationals Schools had moved in recent times from the division of pupils into separate groups for belief-specific teaching for four weeks each year, to a model where children learn about religions and beliefs all together in the same classroom for the entire school year.

Mr Conboy said: “ETBs have taken a particular leadership role in respect of Community National Schools, and are determined to continue the evolution of their approach along the lines already begun. The Trinity research affirms that ETBs are moving in the right direction.”

The junior curriculum will be reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum & Assessmen (NCCA) in the coming academic year with the revised junior curriculum due to be implemented in September 2018.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times