Religious education not taken seriously, says study

Ireland ‘utterly unlike’ other countries in its use of schools for faith formation

The quality of religious education (RE) in Irish schools deserves much closer scrutiny with many pupils and teachers regarding it as a “doss” subject, according to a study in an international journal.

The article by leading UCC academics Prof Áine Hyland and Prof Brian Bocking points out that Ireland is highly unusual in using RE for faith formation in primary schools.

“The type of RE found in Ireland is, for example, utterly unlike that of the UK, where a multireligious curriculum is well-entrenched.”

The study, published in the latest edition of the journal Teaching Theology and Religion', also explores the lacks of parental choice in patronage and notes: "While in theory children may opt out of RE classes at their parents' request, schools can be unwilling or unable to accommodate such requests."


The authors point out that Ireland “is in a process of erratic and unpredictable transition” in this field, and religious and secular interests are “seemingly clashing head-on”.

They add the “dynamism” of former minister for education and skills Ruairí Quinn “in reducing church patronage and promoting pluralism in the Irish school system has given way to seeming inaction”.

Ethics vs faith formation

The authors cite, for example, the failure to develop a planned programme on Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) as well as ethics “to ensure that children can receive education ‘about religions’ as opposed to faith formation in primary schools”.

An education officer was appointed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in summer 2013 but progress has been "slow to date and it is difficult to predict when a national ERB programme will be available".

The study highlights an imbalance in the teaching of RE to different age groups. While RE is near-compulsory at primary level, just 3 per cent of senior cycle students take it as a Leaving Cert examination subject.

“This number may rise in future years, but only if schools recruit sufficient teachers with relevant expertise in the study of religions, and in fact the proportion has not risen in recent years.”

The authors conclude: “An in-depth, nationwide study of classroom practice in RE in today’s Ireland has yet to be conducted and there are undoubtedly some well-informed, gifted, innovative, and inspirational teachers involved in RE, but many pupils and some teachers will describe RE as a ‘doss’ subject (not one requiring their time or attention) and experienced observers agree that there is a need for very significant improvement at all levels across the subject.”

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column