Attack on RE not backed by facts

Government is hampering denominational schools

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has once again suggested that time spent teaching religion in primary schools should be reallocated to teaching maths and English.

Our Education Minister has been beating this particular drum on a regular basis since taking up his post almost three years ago.

Indeed, with regard to denominational schools there appear to be two Ruairi Quinns. I saw the first of them in action at a conference on Catholic education a few years back in which he indicated support and respect for denominational education and parental choice.

Decision making

But the other Ruairi Quinn, the one making actual decisions rather than making speeches seems to be another kettle of fish entirely. The decision-making Quinn is doing his best to hamper the ability of denominational schools to be true to their ethos.

The second version of Ruairi Quinn is set on curbing the right of Church-run schools to hire teachers who will fully respect the ethos of their employer. This Ruairi Quinn set up a forum on the future of denominational schools that has made recommendations which would, if implemented, make denominational schools denominational in name only.

He wants less religion to be taught in religious schools. It would be more honest of Mr Quinn to simply admit to himself and to the public that he doesn’t like denominational schools.

When I address audiences around the country I sometimes make the point that there are three basic attitudes to religion and its role in society. The first wants religion to disappear from society entirely. The second wants religion to play a part in society on much the same terms as anyone and anything else. The third doesn’t mind religion continuing to exist so long as it exists only on a ‘reservation’ away from everyone else, that is, restricts itself to the private sphere.

This seems to be Ruairi Quinn’s attitude. However, he is confronted by the fact that Church-run schools do exist in the public arena in a very big way and are constitutionally protected. His tactic therefore appears to be to make them denominational in name only.


I could spend the rest of this article defending the right of denominational schools to have a strong ethos. I could argue that parental choice is a meaningless concept unless the State is willing to back their choices with public funds.

Instead, let’s look at the assumption behind Ruairi Quinn’s call for less time to be spent teaching religion and more time to be spent teaching maths and English. His assumption is clearly that reallocating time from religion class to maths and English class would improve academic standards in our primary schools. But what is the evidence for this? The answer is that there is little or none.

PISA tables

A few weeks ago the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published its annual PISA tables. These measure the performance of 15 years old internationally in maths, reading and science.

John McBride, a statistician, analysed the results in a blog for The Iona Institute. East Asian countries fared best. But among European countries, Ireland fared very well.

As John wrote: “There were 38 European countries taking part in 2012's PISA tests (counting England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland as separate countries). Of these 38, Ireland ranked 2nd in reading, 10th in mathematics and 6th in science. Ireland's aggregate score across the three subjects was the 7th highest of the 38 European countries.”

Decidedly secular Sweden, often held up as the model in all things, fared badly and has been sliding down the tables for a long time.

It might, I suppose, be argued that these tables look at 15 year olds, not primary school children. However, the foundations of a child’s education are laid down in the eight years of primary school education. It is basically the strength of those foundations we are examining when we see how 15 years old fare in maths, reading and science.

Near the top

Why is Ireland doing relatively well if the amount of time spent teaching religion is having such a bad effect on academic standards? If this was so, then shouldn’t Ireland be near the bottom of those tables compared with other European countries instead of near the top?

Also, why does Ruairi Quinn single out religion for special mention? He could have just as easily have said that less time should be spent teaching other subjects, such as Irish, for example. (I’m not suggesting this by the way).

Or why does he not say less time should be spent teaching say, RSE?

In fact, critics of teaching any religion at all in school (Quinn is not one of those) and who say instead it should be left up to parents and the Churches, never say the same thing about RSE.

Positive force

In singling out religion for special mention and without being able to point to any real evidence that the time spent teaching it is dragging down standards, Quinn leaves himself open to the accusation that he simply doesn’t like religion very much.

Indeed, other comments he has made indicate the sort of religion he wants taught in schools is comparative religion, meaning teaching children to compare and contrast the various religions as distinct from being formed in their own religion.

He doesn’t appear to properly understand that many parents send their children to religious schools precisely because they want those schools to help them raise their children in their religion.

They want to do this because they see religion as a positive force, as a good thing, as the bedrock of a good life.

Does Ruairi Quinn believe that religion is, on balance, a force for good? If he doesn’t then it’s no wonder he want to reduce its influence in our schools.