State-run primary schools will no longer provide faith formation classes for Catholic students during the school day under new changes.
The move means it will be up to parishes and parents in these schools to organise sacramental preparation for children who are preparing for communion and confirmation.
It may also spark a wider debate over whether faith formation classes for other schools should be moved outside regular school hours.
At present, there are 12 community national schools across the State under the patronage of local Education and Training Boards with almost 4,000 students.
They were originally established almost a decade ago by the Department of Education as multi-denominational schools which allowed for religious instruction and sacramental preparation for Catholics.
The Church at the time warned that provision of faith formation for Catholic pupils was a “minimum non-negotiable requirement” for its support for the new school model.
Outside school hours
However, Education and Training Boards (ETBs), which took over patronage of the schools in the past year, have now decided that religious instruction should take place outside normal school hours.
Michael Moriarty, general secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland, said the move was aimed at ensuring all children are treated equally in school.
He said there were logistical problems in trying to accommodate sacramental preparation for some children and not for others.
“If everybody is to be treated equally, then belief instruction would have to be outside school time, ” he said.
It is planned that faith formation classes will be phased out of the school day in existing community national schools, while they will not be provided in new schools.
Catholic bishops are understood to have been consulted over the plans. Minister for Education Richard Bruton has welcomed the move.
“Clearly, it is line with good practice models...” he said. “The idea of a community national school is a clear multi-denominational school which welcomes all faiths and creates an environment where faith is respected, without any particular faith being promoted,” he said. “This anticipated decision reflects the evolution of that model.”
The existing approach, which often involved segregating children for religious instruction or sacramental preparation, had drawn criticism from some parents and school leaders.
Mr Moriarty said many community national schools have been moving away from this approach.
He insisted that community national schools will continue to provide a “belief-nurturing” environment by allowing students to explore their faiths and beliefs. This, he said, would distinguish them from “secular schools”.
“A unique feature of our model is the common belief-nurturing programme encourages pupils to engage with their families and belief communities to learn more about their own faith or secular beliefs,” he said.
“What is considered a private aspect of the child’s life in some school types is brought into the public space in a community national school.”
Meanwhile, the president of Education and Training Boards Ireland has called on authorities to ensure the viability of island schools in Ireland by providing specific ring-fenced funding on an ongoing basis.
Speaking at the organisation’s annual conference, Pat Gilmore said other countries such as Norway, Sweden and Iceland have taken specific steps to protect island schools.
“These governments recognise that schools are the glue that binds communities together, and consequently take their national responsibility very seriously, giving their full support to small schools, many of which are located in rural areas,” he said.
Mr Gilmore said recent research has upheld the case for supporting small schools on the basis of their positive ethos and important place in the community.
“Small size can mean big opportunities; small schools forge closer links with families and communities; small class sizes allow for improved pupil-teacher relationships. Small schools build and shape successful students and stronger communities,” he said.
“Being positioned at the heart of the local community, they are vital for rural sustainability.”