Catholic schools deserved to be respected as genuine partners in reform

Attempts to blame the Church for the death of a new religious education curriculum are wide of the mark, writes Prof. Eamonn Conway

Finance Minister Michael Noonan recently described the water charges debacle as a “dead cat” to be got off the pitch as soon as possible.

Similar thoughts may have struck Minister for Education Richard Bruton when he saw the final report of the National Council for Curriculum & Assessment’s (NCCA) consultation on a proposed new curriculum subject, Education about Religion & Beliefs (ERBE).

The majority of written submissions endorsed denominational education and rejected the NCCA proposal.

Recent headlines, based on a leaked version of the report, attempted to blame the institutional Church for the demise of ERBE. This was unfair as most of the criticism came from people at the coalface: parents, teachers, principals and school managers. The report is a ‘Brexit moment’ for elites attempting to steer educational reform. Well connected and well resourced, these lobby groups, some of which are State-funded, have been shown to be largely unrepresentative of people on the ground.

ERBE is a legacy of the Forum on Patronage & Pluralism, established by Ruairi Quinn in 2011 in fulfillment of a Labour Party manifesto promise.


The Forum had two objectives. The first was the divestment of schools under denominational patronage. The second was to make schools remaining under denominational patronage inclusive for non-Christians and nonbelievers.

Church leaders were broadly supportive of the first objective because the Church views parents as the primary educators of their children. Vatican II stated, “Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.”

It was generally agreed in Church circles that there were too many Catholic schools and that some should be divested. Divestment would assist the State in its responsibility to vindicate the rights of non-Christian parents. Hopefully, it would also mean that schools remaining denominational could be more overt about their ethos.

The second objective, dealing with inclusion, was more contentious. This was because reports, including from the Schools Inspectorate, testified to the fine job Catholic schools were already doing in this regard.

The Department of Education and Skills held three separate consultations aimed at demonstrating support for the Forum’s objectives. All three turned out to be methodologically-flawed. Insofar as the consultations produced anything reliable it was, in fact, critical of the Forum’s presuppositions and surprisingly supportive of Catholic education.

The first consultation was on divestment. Even in areas considered most likely to reflect parental demand for change, response rates were as low as 16%; they never rose above 29%. This was partly because only web-based responses were allowed. The Department did not trust school boards to assist in the process and discouraged public meetings.

Among parents who responded to the consultation demand for change was also very low, ranging from 24% to 32%.

This left Church leaders in a quandary. It was difficult to support divestment when sufficient parental demand had not been demonstrated.

The second consultation related to inclusion. The department circulated a consultative leaflet entitled, “How can primary schools make all children feel included and involved?” Unfortunately, the leaflet was flawed in four respects.

First, it biased the consultation by conveying the impression that in Catholic schools inclusion was the exception and not the norm.

Second, it presented inclusiveness and involvement as subjective feelings. If a pupil or a parent did not ‘feel’ that they were sufficiently ‘involved’ it implied that a school was failing in its responsibility to be ‘inclusive.’

Third, the leaflet implied the ‘correct’ answers to several of the questions it raised.

Fourth, it conveyed the impression that the Church’s practical support for Catholic schools in the form of provision of land and financial contributions to building and maintenance costs belonged to the distant past. It did not acknowledge sufficiently that Catholic patrons are actively involved in the provision of schools for children in local communities to this day, schools that welcome children of all faiths and backgrounds.


The Catholic Schools Partnership (CPS) did excellent work in providing the department with concrete examples of current best practice in regard to inclusion. When the department issued its update on the implementation of the Forum objectives in 2014 it acknowledged that inclusion is the norm in Catholic schools. However, it felt more could be done to communicate what schools are already doing in this regard.

The latest report deals with what was to be the core element in the inclusion agenda. ERBE was to be made mandatory as a new subject in all schools and for all pupils.

Respondents deemed ERBE unacceptable for a number of reasons. Teachers and principals considered the introduction of an additional discrete curriculum subject unrealistic given existing curriculum overload and time constraints.

Generally, respondents felt ERBE was unnecessary. The reasons given by the NCCA for its introduction included the development of self-respect, tolerance towards others, open mindedness and civic mindedness. These, it was pointed out, are already provided for in the current curriculum.

Respondents also referred to research showing that tolerance and mutual respect are fostered more through commitment to one’s own faith than through assimilation of general knowledge about various beliefs.

They also pointed out that age-appropriate knowledge in regard to various beliefs is already a part of denominational religious education.

Proponents of ERBE had stressed that it would complement existing denominational RE. This was rejected on two grounds. Practically speaking teachers felt it was incredulous that time would be provided in primary schools for two religion subjects. Inevitably, denominational RE would be squeezed out.

More seriously, it was noted, the two approaches to RE contradict each other and are incompatible. There is no neutral way to teach ‘about’ religions. ERBE would teach Catholic pupils that no religion is true and that personal moral autonomy is an end in itself. Catholic parents of children in Catholic schools would find that they were being given at best an agnostic understanding of their own faith.

Once again, the survey instrument came in for criticism of response bias, this time not only from respondents but also from the Economic and Social Research Institute commissioned to assist with analysing the data.

The NCCA’s next step is to overhaul the curriculum so that ERBE can be integrated by other means.

Catholic parents, teachers, principals, school managers and representative bodies have engaged energetically, respectfully and patiently in all the consultations so far. Catholic representative bodies continue to work to co-ordinate their efforts and become more cohesive.

By virtue of being Catholic they are already committed to genuine pluralism and inclusion, and this in a way that is respectful both of the beliefs of all parents and pupils, and of the characteristic spirit of their schools.

They deserve to be trusted and respected more fully as genuine partners in curricular reform from here on.


Prof. Eamonn Conway is Head of Theology & Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College – University of Limerick.