The consultation on Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics in the Primary School was launched by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and will run until spring. However, it will be a number of years before any finalised curriculum will be introduced in primary schools.
At present, the teaching of religion in primary schools is the responsibility of school patrons — typically of the Catholic ethos, along with a smaller number of other religious faiths.
The State had no direct input up to now, but any new curriculum or programme derived as a result of the public consultation will teach about religion, beliefs, and ethics, rather than the teaching of religion itself.
The consultation also opens up the possibility of atheism being broached in schools, though when children are at a later stage of the primary school cycle.
In a consultation paper on its website, the NCCA states: “Education about religions and beliefs helps children to know about and understand the cultural heritage of the major forms of religion, belief traditions, and worldviews which have been embraced by humankind.
“It does not nurture the belief or practice of any one religion; instead it focuses on fostering an informed awareness of the main theist, non-theist, and secular beliefs, including key aspects of their cultural manifestations.”
According to the document, patrons of schools will still have a responsibility for the teaching of religion, and any new curriculum or programme devised as a result of the consultation will not be a substitute.
However, there is also an acceptance that, for many people within the education system, the teaching of religion — alongside the wider issue of patronage — is a “sensitive” one.
About 97% of primary schools in Ireland are faith-based and the NCCA said “a curriculum for education about religions and beliefs and ethics is for all children attending primary schools in the Republic of Ireland” as “religions, beliefs, and ethics are important aspects of life and human experience”.
It adds: “Each school patron has a right to develop a programme that supports and contributes to the ethos of their school.”
The NCCA said it wanted any finalised curriculum to reflect children’s “lived experiences” and that work on the programme would look at systems which operate in other countries, the feedback from the consultation process, and how time could be allocated for the teaching of the subject in a situation where teachers are already stressing heavy workload in schools.
Currently, patron programmes in schools equate to 30 minutes of teaching a day and a council spokesperson said: “The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment realise that the current primary education curriculum has certain constraints around time and the council will be advising the Minister for Education on this in 2016.”
According to the consultation paper: “Participation in education about religions and beliefs and ethics will help foster a sense of identity and belonging in children by developing their self-awareness, self-confidence, self- esteem and, ultimately, their happiness.”
The consultation process also includes short questionnaires for parents, teachers, the public and support documentation.
Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan welcomed the launch yesterday and said it was “another important recommendation from [the] forum on patronage being progressed”.