Scant religious practice in trainee primary teachers, study finds

One-third of teaching applicants say they rarely or never practise their religion

A new study has found “low levels” of religious practice and religiosity among trainee primary teachers.

The finding comes at a time when there is controversy over the fact that 96 per cent of primary schools are under denominational control.

The survey carried out by NUI Galway’s school of education examined attitudes towards religion among more than 1,000 teaching entrants and applicants in an anonymous survey in 2014.

It found the vast majority identified as Catholic (90 per cent), a rate higher than the general population at the time (78 per cent).


A small minority of respondents (5 per cent) stated they had no religion, which was half the rate of the general population.

Religious services

However, when asked about their beliefs, one-third of respondents said they rarely or never practised their religion or attended religious services.

Researchers found there was much less support for faith-formation-style religious instruction, even among Catholic respondents

While most described themselves as “religious” (58 per cent), the remainder (42 per cent) self-described as either “not religious”, “did not know” or, in a small number of cases, atheist.

On the issue of teaching religion, most respondents said they were strongly in favour of teaching children about all faiths, world views and religions.

The researchers found there was much less support for faith-formation-style religious instruction, even among Catholic respondents.

Questions raised

Lead author of the study, Dr Manuela Heinz, said the finding raised questions over the experiences of non-religious teachers in schools.

“Considering that only 58 per cent of our respondents considered themselves to be ‘a religious person’, we need to ask what about the others? What experiences await them as they pursue careers as primary teachers?” she asked.

The study notes that all teachers in Catholic primary schools are contractually required to obtain a Catholic certificate in religious studies and to teach the Catholic religious education curriculum.

She said this curriculum includes specific faith-formation goals, despite the “obvious conflict” with freedom of thought, conscience and religion for those who may not share the same religious beliefs as the patron of the school.

The study also notes that under an exemption clause in the Employment Equality Act, schools are entitled to discriminate against employees or prospective employees to protect their religious ethos .

However, it also notes that this “overrides” the right of teachers to freedom of conscience and the free practice and profession of religion, as provided for in the Constitution.

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