Law may hamper course on religions in primary schools

Plans for a standalone course to teach primary pupils about world religions and ethics may be hampered by a law that gives a school patron tight control on what can be taught.

The limitations have been highlighted by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) after a consultation process that received more than 170 written submissions.

It suggests the principles proposed to be taught in an Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics (ERBE) programme might instead be woven into other aspects of the primary curriculum.

A strong theme to emerge from participants, who made their views known over five months up to last March, was that the practices and teaching suggested are already in use in many schools to increase inclusivity.

However, a key difficulty for the introduction of the proposed curriculum was raised about the 1998 Education Act’s requirement that an education minister must have regard to the characteristic spirit of a school when setting out a curriculum.

This allows the school to teach the curriculum from the faith perspective of the patron, being the bishop in the case of Catholic or other Christian schools.

This can see the patron of a school impact how certain areas are taught, such as the relationships and sexuality education section of social, personal and health education (SPHE).

The NCCA report says the act has the unintended effect of limiting what can be achieved through a state curriculum in ERBE. The provisions of a number of sections of the act are, it says, “potential barriers to the type of ‘objective, critical and pluralist’ approaches advocated in the proposals” for the new curriculum.

This reflects the position of several denominational patrons, but other submissions questioned if denominational schools would deliver the ERBE programme as suggested, or would do so objectively.

The NCCA reports that time constraints and curriculum overload were major issues raised during the ERBE consultation. However, it has already begun a separate exercise to examine possible changes to the structure of the primary curriculum which, it now suggests, may offer a chance to facilitate issues proposed to be taught in the religion and ethics programme.

“If a more incremental stage approach to curriculum design is followed, opportunities arise to incorporate the types of teaching and learning described by ERB and Ethics into existing curriculum areas,” it said.

These might include the identity and belonging aspects of the Aistear curriculum for infant classes, or within SPHE or social, environmental and scientific education (SESE).

In a survey of 400 parents to be released today by Equate, which lobbies for schools to better reflect societal changes, 71% said a subject on all religions and ethics should be introduced.

The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association said it took part in the consultation in the context of valuing current provision for religious education in Catholic schools, respecting the rights of parents who want a faith-based education for their children, and developing a deeper sense of care for all pupils.

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