Religious education is currently allocated 2½ hours a week in Irish primary schools. Considering the social, environmental and scientific education (SESE) subjects of history, geography and science get three hours a week, that’s a significant amount of time.
Yet there is no national curriculum for religious education at primary level. Instead the subject’s provision has been left entirely up to the patron bodies, 96 per cent of whom are religious denominations.
Last week, however, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) began a long-awaited consultation to develop a curriculum for education about religion and beliefs (ERB) and ethics. This was a recommendation of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, a 2012 report that highlighted several areas of concern at primary level.
One stems from the fact that our education system claims to cater for all children’s moral and spiritual development, while at the same time parents have a constitutional right to remove their children from religious education (RE).
That allows some students to pass through primary school without receiving any education in ethics and religious beliefs, potentially creating a gap in their learning. It’s too early to judge how the NCCA’s proposals to address that gap will work out, but whatever policy emerges will supplement, rather than replace, existing RE programmes within schools.
"I think there are thorny issues that will need to be ironed out around that," says Anne Hession, a lecturer in RE at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. "The religious education programmes of denominational schools come from a particular perspective and obviously you can't violate the ethos of those schools, so the question will be how they integrate any new ethics programme or curriculum into what they're doing."
In the meantime, there are signs the nature of faith-based religious education in Ireland is changing. This year, Hession wrote the first ever RE curriculum for Catholic preschools and primary schools, which was approved by the Irish Episcopal Conference. The first programme to apply it is the Grow in Love series, introduced to junior and senior infants in September, which will be rolled out over the next four years. The last time Catholic primary schools had a new catechetical programme was 1996, when the Alive-O series was launched.
“Nobody thought [Alive-O] would have lasted so long but everyone agreed that it’s outdated and not fit for purpose for much longer,” says Hession, explaining the new curriculum features updated cultural references and greater inter-religious learning. “It was badly needed to bring some clarity into what we are doing in religious education and what we’re trying to achieve at each level.”
The educational landscape has changed immeasurably over the past 20 years. Alternative models of RE, such as the multibelief programme at community national schools and the Educate Together ethical curriculum, may be in a minority but they also reflect an appetite for something different among parents and teachers.
“I think an emerging issue is the capacity of teachers to teach Catholic religious education in terms of not having faith or not having developed Christian spirituality themselves, as well as simply not having the resources to teach a faith-based religious education curriculum. That’s something I think is going to have to be faced in the years to come,” says Hession.
Finding a teacher to speak candidly about this can be difficult. Several contacted for this article were reluctant to comment, even off the record. Sarah, a teacher at a Catholic primary school in Wicklow, spoke on condition of anonymity.
She says her school is diverse and “very much takes a step back” when it comes to religion – to the point that she has not taught RE once this year. Still, none of her pupils has ever opted out of religion, including Muslims, and she recalls just two occasions when a parent expressed reservations about faith formation at the school.
“I wouldn’t know of anybody that actually teaches the allocated requirement [for RE],” she says. “Obviously, you’ll never find that out because it’s not something that can be said. But what’s written on paper isn’t what’s actually practised. I think it depends on whether you are a practising Catholic. I’m not and I don’t see any need for faith formation in schools, therefore I don’t make any time for it.” Asked what she does when diocesan advisers visit the school, Sarah replies: “You pretend.”
Aoife, another teacher who would only speak anonymously, teaches second class at a Catholic school in Dublin, where she has worked for decades.
She currently has many non-national pupils, including Buddhists and Russian Orthodox Christians, who remain in their places for RE and absorb the lesson.
In preparation for Communion, she says, they will sit at the back of the church doing other activities such as knitting or puzzles. Aoife is aware of just one couple in the past six years who objected to religious instruction at the school.
This is not an isolated case. One teacher at a girls’ school in south Dublin said most children of non-Catholic backgrounds are not only involved in sacramental preparation, but will attend Communion and take part in photos (often wearing clothing typical of their faith tradition).
“I would never do the prescribed 2½ hours,” says Aoife. “I would hit at it in fits and starts, knowing it’s kind of exclusive unless I make extra effort the night before to skirt around what’s relevant. I don’t see the point otherwise. Other areas of the curriculum are suffering and I prefer to give my time to literacy and maths.”
Waste of precious time
Aoife tailors her RE lessons to focus on broad themes, such as school spirit and building friendships, until the run-up to Communion. She describes the sacramental preparation as a waste of precious time and believes most children won’t attend mass again until making their Confirmation.
“I sometimes wonder why teachers are doing it at all. I’m beginning to see now, having been reared as Catholic myself, that it’s outside my brief. Catholicism has changed since I was at school and the vast majority of children don’t practise it, so you’d wonder why teachers are trying to do what parents are not doing. It’s a huge challenge but anything that’s brought on board to improve the present situation would be very welcome,” she says.
A spokesman for the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation says teachers agree as part of their duties to teach the programmes and curriculums in place at a particular school, which may include faith formation.
However, the organisation did inform the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism that teachers increasingly say that being responsible for faith formation which is not actively supported by family or the faith community is placing an unfair burden of responsibility on their work.
"I know there's no concrete research on this, but anecdotally it would appear that religious education is piecemeal at best," says Dr Gerry O'Connell, who lectures in RE at Dublin's Marino Institute of Education. "Though I would always question whether the aim of the teacher in not doing it is to be inclusive."
The boundaries between religious education and faith formation, O’Connell says, are difficult to parse. Educating children spiritually doesn’t only happen in RE, he says. It can happen, for example, in working with children around the future of the planet, the school environment and how we treat others, things that teachers cover every day.
Faith formation, on the other hand, is the focus of the home and the parish.
“I think from people’s own experience of religious education in schools, they know that faith formation is not something that happens automatically. It may be enmeshed in a school’s religious education but it’s not something that happens there. I think people sometimes get caught up in that. It’s a terrible burden that’s placed on Irish teachers to imagine, given the skill levels they have for teaching religious education, that in some magical way they can also inflict some kind of faith formation on children who don’t wish to avail of that,” O’Connell says.
He prefers not to comment in advance of examining the proposed national ERB and Ethics curriculum but he is concerned about how it will fit into an already packed programme. He feels people are constantly proposing solutions based on what they see in other societies or in terms of their own philosophical standpoints. But he doesn’t detect much listening, something he believes educators need to be doing now more than ever.
“My question the whole time is, ‘Whose ethics will they be?’ Will the children be consulted? Or is it a question of an adult projection put into primary schools? The danger with ERB and Ethics is that we’re going to teach children things we want them to know when they’re 20, so I think it’s an area we need to take care with. And that care should be for the children,” he says.
Critical mass: Benefits of a pluralistic approach
A recent research paper by sociologists at Trinity College Dublin argued Irish primary schools should adopt a responsive, pluralistic approach to religious education (RE) that enables students to think critically about religions while learning about diversity and human rights.
The paper also highlighted that while Ireland was not unique within Europe in its denominational approach to religious education, countries such as Denmark, the UK and Estonia had a more general “religious studies” approach overseen by the state.
"What that does is basically treat [RE] like any other subject," says Prof Daniel Faas, who led the paper. "Students study it in a more academic discipline as a sort of general knowledge base to increase inter-religious awareness, intercultural dialogue and so on. Sometimes that can get more restricted in the faith formation approach."
Faas says that when he thinks back to his own school days in Germany, he sometimes wishes he had been able to learn more about different religions.
“Instead I learned about them from travelling and interacting with people,” he says. “Even at a time when I couldn’t make the choice in school, I almost felt deprived in not being exposed to those kind of things.”
Up for discussion: religions and beliefs curriculum
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has begun a consultation process to develop a national curriculum for Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics.
This will be separate from existing religious programmes within schools and aims to help children develop empathy with people of diverse religions and beliefs.
The compulsory curriculum proposes to be a child-centred pedagogy that is pluralist in nature while recognising the influential role of teachers and valuing the child as a “curious, capable, confident and caring individual”.
The council has invited schools and parents to contribute to the consultation process, which will last until spring 2016. ncca.ie/consultation/erbe