Religion may be out of core curriculum for primary schools

New NCCA proposals give schools more freedom to focus on other areas of study

Religious education will no longer feature as part of the State’s core curriculum at primary school under new proposals being considered by policy-makers.

Instead, schools will have the freedom to decide how much time they wish to spend on teaching religion as part of “flexible time”. At present, schools typically spend up to two and a half hours a week on religion.

While the 1998 Education Act protects the right of schools to set aside time in each school day for subjects relating to the school’s ethos, it does not stipulate the amount of time to be allocated.

Under proposals to be formally launched next month, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) says a minimum of 60 per cent of the school day could be set aside for teaching the core curriculum, such as English, Irish and maths.


Up to 40 per cent of the rest of the school day would be designated as “flexible time” for roll call, assembly, breaks, discretionary curriculum time and the patron’s programme.

This would give schools much greater freedom to spend additional time on literacy and numeracy, or other planned parts of the curriculum such as computer coding.

Religious education

Schools would be free to decide how much, or how little, time they wished to spend on religious education.

The proposals form part of a major new blueprint on the structure and time allocation for a re-developed primary school curriculum.

They represent some of the biggest proposed changes to teaching and learning at primary school level in decades.

One of the most significant is that children in primary schools may not study traditional subjects until as late as 10 years of age.

Instead, there would be a much greater focus on creative play during the early years of primary school and broader areas of learning in later years.

The reforms are based loosely on some of the features of top-performing education systems in countries such as Finland, as well as extensive research with Irish schools.

The NCCA said the proposals are intended to begin a discussion about the redevelopment of the primary curriculum.

An initial consultation will run through spring next year, including a major conference on March 28th in Dublin Castle. The NCCA will use the findings to draft an overview of a redeveloped primary curriculum, which will be the focus of further consultation in late 2017 and into 2018.

Consultation process

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) welcomed the consultation process saying there was a very real sense of overload among primary teachers. The union's general secretary Sheila Nunan said primary teachers were teaching seven curriculum areas with each one further sub-divided into more subjects.

“They are then expected to teach all these to multiple groups of children in large classes while at the same time provide additional learning programmes for children with special needs and very able pupils,” she said.

“While teachers are told to select ‘a la carte’ from a ‘menu’ curriculum, the expectation still tends to be that at the end of the year, all areas will be covered. This is an unrealistic goal which this process must address.”

She said it was important that any review retains the breadth and balance in the learning experiences provided for children.

“The child-centred nature of the primary curriculum must be retained. The present curriculum is good for children but teachers are paying the price in terms of workload stress,” she said.

“The challenge is to make the curriculum manageable for teachers. Planning is a key task. At present, teachers have more homework than children. Increased accountability has developed into endless recording of pupil progress.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent