Much has been reported on the new community national school model in the absence of any systematic research.
These are State-supported, multidenominational primary schools which aim to provide equal and inclusive education to children from all faiths and none. There are 11 in the country, with numbers expected to grow over the coming years.
Much public commentary has focused on how these schools are separating children on the basis of religion during their religious education programme.
Community national schools follow the multibelief Goodness me, Goodness You! programme.
It is correct that the junior programme (ages 4-9) was initially designed to dedicate 20 per cent of its religious education programme time to “belief-specific” teaching, by separating children into four belief groups (Catholic, Christian, Muslim and “other” for three to four weeks of the year). However, all but two of the 11 schools have now abandoned this practice.
This was not simply in response to negative media coverage, but for reasons including lack of staff resources, and diversity of pupil faiths making it impossible to maintain the originally envisaged four belief groups.
Add to this the finding of our research – the first systematic empirical study capturing the opinions of principals, teachers and pupils across this new school sector – that pupils wish to learn together with their friends about religions other than their own in one class.
Although the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment will only embark on a review of the junior programme from September 2017, the results are already obvious: community national schools have moved beyond belief-specific teaching for a myriad of reasons outlined above, and are now grappling with another pressing question: how to deal with the issue of sacramental preparation.
Our research shows that schools currently are practising a wide variety of approaches, ranging from sacramental preparing during the school day, to facilitating the sacraments outside the normal school day.
Many of the 11-year-old pupils in our study expressed the view that sacramental preparation during the school day has led to a perceived privileging of Catholic students over other faith groups, prompting questions about the supposedly equal and inclusive ethos of this school model.
It is clear that, to maintain an inclusive and equality-based approach to (religious) education, no group can be given special treatment over another.
Non-Catholic parents are most unlikely to approach a school requesting for faith formation classes because many of these parents send their children to religious classes (and language classes such as Arabic) outside the regular school day.
By contrast, Catholic parents in Ireland have too often relied on schools to take on the role of providing sacramental education if they wish their children to go for Communion and Confirmation. It is not the role of schools to be the primary belief nurturer or facilitator.
Community national schools now find themselves in a position where they are "negotiating with priests over preparation for sacraments", as reported by RTÉ on June 21st.
Our study showed that schools differ in their amount of time dedicated to sacramental preparation based on bazaar-like negotiations teachers and principals enter with local priests and parishes.
It is then down to the progressive or ideological nature of the parish priest (coupled with parish resources or not) as to how much of a role the parish is willing to take on in providing sacraments.
Given the strong concerns non-Catholic pupils in our study have raised at this privileging of Catholic students – which is of course by no means a feature of just community national schools – the church and priests can no longer opt out of their responsibility to take on the main role of providing sacramental preparation. It would be welcomed if these schools soon decided to move sacramental preparation out of the regular school day. However, this then leaves them with perhaps the most fundamental question of all: what will be the community national school ethos and identity?
These schools were founded in 2007 as multidenominational schools with the support of the then minister of education, Mary Hanafin, to provide faith formation during the school day. Irish society has changed considerably over the past decade, and so has the vision of those school leaders within community national schools.
Census 2016 shows only 78 per cent identifying as Catholics (down from 84 per cent in 2011) with 10 per cent of the population stating “no religion”.
However, 96 per cent of primary schools are still denominational, and there is a real demand for further multidenominational education.
Religion has its place in schools, and learning about religion and from religion is important as shown in our study.
A large majority of pupils wanted to know more about religions other than their own and were curious to discuss these matters in a safe and supportive setting as part of the school day.
Religion (or no religion), just like language or gender, is part of our identity and needs to be embedded within the school day.
It was clear that facilitating intercultural and multifaith discussions and empowering pupils to learn from each other and to celebrate various festivals together in community national schools contributed to their high levels of cultural and religious knowledge and strong interethnic friendships.
Emphasising the role of parents as primary belief-nurturer while continuing to pro-actively facilitate religious discussion of all faiths during school time sets this State-supported new type of primary school – governed by the Education and Training Boards – apart from denominational schools on the one hand and Educate Together schools on the other.
Developing a multilingual language policy (beyond Irish), in addition to a multifaith ethos, would further strengthen the important place of this expanding primary school model in Ireland.
Daniel Faas is professor in sociology at Trinity College Dublin and lead researcher of a recently published study on community national schools.