There are no plans to remove the teaching of religion from schools, the Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has insisted.
He came under firerecently for suggesting at a principals’ conference that primary teachers might use part of the half an hour a day set aside for the teaching of religion for literacy and numeracy.
But he said he does not want religion removed from the curriculum, as it is an important subject.
“If you look at the role that religion has played and continues to play, the idea that you can ignore religion or religious belief is simply wrong, and I want respect for religion to be understood and for people who have different religious beliefs in this country to be respected accordingly.
“I was asked a question. I gave an honest answer. I would not say there should be no religion in schools,” he told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Seán O’Rourke.
But he also said that faith formation and preparation for sacraments — as distinct from religious instruction — can take up quite a lot of time in school.
He said he understands there is a growing movement to have responsibility for those roles taken on by the local parish and the children’s families, and not just by schools.
He said he had not pushed too hard the idea of transferring patronage of schools from Catholic bishops to afford more choice for parents, and just one school has so far been divested nationally to a multi-denominational patron.
It is almost three years since he started the process to examine the control of primary schools and how they cater for an increasingly diverse population, but he said it was a response to Dublin Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin saying he only needed around half the 500 primary schools under his patronage.
The minister also said he is satisfied to leave in place the current model of primary patronage, under which 95% of the country’s 3,300 primary schools are controlled by the local Catholic or Church of Ireland bishop, as it has worked and continues to work very well.
He said the relationship between schools and the State is changing and he will soon publish legislation to regulate school enrolment policies for the first time.
The question of state control and intervention in the running of schools was key in last week’s landmark European Court of Human Rights decision in favour of Louise O’Keeffe, who was abused as a child by her primary school principal in the 1970s. Despite High Court and Supreme Court findings that no liability rested with the Department of Education or the State, following litigation she initiated in 1998, the Strasbourg court said the State failed in its obligation to protect her from inhuman or degrading treatment.
Mr Quinn said he is still getting advice on the judgment.
“I think everybody feels for her and certainly I’d like to join with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste in expressing my regret that she had that long experience,” he said.
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