Do they know it’s Easter time at all? Changes afoot for religious education in schools.

Caoimhe Cooke

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This time last year was particularly demanding for Catholic primary school children in Ireland. Due to a very early Easter, the week before end-of-term holidays was even more hectic than usual. In between readings of the 1916 Proclamation and tri-colour flag raising ceremonies, children were affixing glittering shamrocks to St. Patrick’s Day headbands, re-enacting the twelve Stations of the Cross in the PE hall and learning céilí dances at break times. It is hardly surprising that some children became confused and got their St. Patricks mixed up with their Jesus Christs.

This child’s drawing, humourous as it may be, could be viewed as a symptom of an overloaded and unrealistic school system – one in which vital messages are being lost or misinterpreted by its pupils. With competing interests seeking placement for time in the school day, as well as the additional time required since 2011 to be dedicated to literacy and numeracy, it is not surprising that the ‘patron’s time’ of 2 and ½ hours per week for Religious Education (R.E.) is being called into question by parents and educators alike.

Last year, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) concluded a long-awaited consultation to develop a curriculum for Education about Religion and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics at primary level. The Consultation Report provides a detailed overview of the entire process, as well as the findings from the consultation and directions for the development of ERB and Ethics.

state-funded Irish schools are legally allowed to discriminate on the ground of religion

The consultation engaged with a range of audiences including teachers, schools, parents, children, educational partners, patrons, children’s advocacy groups and other members of the general public. The written submissions and questionnaire responses of the consultation are also available to view on the website.

The impending NCCA policy will supplement, rather than replace, existing R.E. programmes within schools, so as not to violate the ethos of individual schools. It states that the State should not be involved in prescribing the amount of time spent on religion and proposes that schools be given the freedom to organise 40% of the school week themselves.

This 40% would include school break times, assemblies, recreation, as well as class time including religious education.

the State should not be involved in prescribing the amount of time spent on religion.

So, how are these proposals being met? Could they create greater equality in schools?

No, says Micheal Nugent, CEO of Atheist Ireland. In a recent article for teachdontpreach.ie, entitled ‘New Government Education Action Plan Fails to Address Religious Discrimination’, Mr. Nugent writes that “by refusing to teach the State curriculum in an objective manner…state-funded Irish schools are legally allowed to discriminate on the ground of religion.”

Mr Nugent writes about how Atheist Ireland are constantly lobbying the government for change in the area of R.E.: “While the NCCA is currently more progressive than it was some years ago, they still have no power to ensure that what they recommend is delivered in an objective manner. More often you’ll find that it [R.E.] is taught through the ethos of the school which, in most cases, is Catholic. Changing this would require changes to the Education Act.”

“The NCCA are progressive enough, but essentially have little power to limit the time spent on R.E. in the schools. In order to see any change, we must amend the Education Act.”

The 1998 Education Act sets out a statutory framework for Irish Education at primary and post-primary level. Article 15 states that a school’s Board of Management must ‘uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit of the school as determined by the cultural, educational, moral, religious, social, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions which inform and are characteristic of the objectives and conduct of the school.’

According to teachdontpreach.ie, around 90% of primary schools in Ireland are controlled by the Catholic Church, 6% by Protestant Churches and, of the remainder, 2% are multi-denominational.

“the purpose of education is to educate children about difference, not to keep them away from it. We should be teaching them about each other.”

Ms. McAuliffe is the principal of a multi-denominational community school in Dublin, one of eleven Community National Schools (CNS) established since 2008. They are state funded, multi-belief schools that adopt an inclusive approach to teaching (as opposed to the secular, non-denominational Educate Together model). They teach a programme called ‘Goodness Me, Goodness You!’, which aims to focus on all dimensions of a child’s family and community life, including beliefs and religions, while also encouraging conversation between faiths and beliefs. “Faith formation should come from the parents”, says Tracey, “the purpose of education is to educate children about difference, not to keep them away from it. We should be teaching them about each other.”

When I asked Tracey about the NCCA’s consultation on the development of ERB, she echoed the points made by Mr. Nugent of Atheist Ireland – namely that the council has no legal power to implement changes to the R.E. curriculum, or alter the time dedicated to teaching the subject area. “The NCCA are progressive enough, but essentially have little power to limit the time spent on R.E. in the schools. In order to see any change, we must amend the Education Act.”

Goodness-Me-Goodness-You

According to the 2011 National Census (2016 results still pending), the non-Catholic population has increased, due to growing numbers of people with ‘no religion’ (138,264 in 2002 compared with 269,111 in 2011) accompanied by an increase in the number of migrants with different belief systems (up from 89,223 in 2002 to 216,401 in 2011). The number of Catholics reached the lowest point in 2011 (3,861,335), representing 84 per cent of the population. A number of primary school aged children (14,769 or 3%) was recorded as belonging to ‘no religion, atheists or agnostics’ categories, with 6 per cent belonging to a minority faith background.

students should study RE like any other subject

How do we address this increased diversity in the classroom? A paper published in 2015 by sociologists at Trinity College Dublin recommended that Ireland adopt a pluralistic approach to R.E.: one that enables critical thought and discussion about religion, while incorporating values about diversity and human rights. The paper, led by professor Daniel Faas, suggests that students should study R.E. ‘like any other subject’. This would be in line with the NCCA proposals of ERB and Ethics – an academic, knowledge-based subject that would teach children about different faiths, without holding any one particular belief system as the ideal.

Ireland has changed vastly in the nineteen years since the Education Act, so much so that we are now seeing a plurality of school types, through divestment and separation, throughout the country e.g. Faith Schools, Educate Together, and CNS. The question of whether religious teachings should be introduced in a school (denominational or otherwise) on the same basis as they are introduced in a church, a mosque or a synagogue has never been more pertinent.

Can we assume, as Catholic schools once did, that the school is an extension of the parish?

 

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Caoimhe Cooke