Faith does not interfere with learning

Minister’s approach to RE ‘simplistic’

‘It’s not fair! Why has Ireland got Ruairi Quinn, while we’re stuck with Michael Gove?’ That’s a headline from the British National Secular Society last April, when Minister Quinn suggested for the first time that there should be less teaching of religion and more of  maths and science.

What is the National Secular Society’s agenda regarding schools? “All state-funded schools should be non-religious in character, with children being educated together regardless of their parents' religion. When a public body grants a contract for the provision of services to an organisation affiliated to a particular religion or belief, such services must be delivered in a neutral manner, with no attempt to promote the ideas of that faith group.”

A man cannot be blamed for his admirers, and I am not suggesting that Minister Quinn would like to see the end of State funding of denominational schools in the same way as the National Secular Society would.

However, it was at the very least, poor timing to announce at the start of Catholic Schools’ Week that time given to religious education should instead be given to maths. It will do nothing to reassure the Catholic schools sector that they are a valued partner in education.

The theme of this year’s Catholic Schools Week is ‘Places of Faith and Learning’. Minister Quinn seems instead to believe that faith interferes with learning.

I often wonder whether Minister Quinn knows what goes on in modern primary schools. At times you could be forgiven for thinking that he believes teachers are getting their pupils to learn off the Catechism.

Coherent learning

Literacy does not happen in a box. While certain skills have to be taught, they only become meaningful if used in real contexts. In fact, the kind of activities that happen in RE in primary school, if properly taught, are very useful for enhancing literacy.

Micheal Martin, a former teacher, was absolutely correct when he said that the minister’s approach was simplistic, and that that “children picked up numeracy and literacy skills not just from dedicated classes but from the wider curriculum”.

The foundational document for Irish primary education is the 1999 Primary School Curriculum. It mentions integrating the curriculum 13 times in less than 90 pages. 

This is a typical example from the 1999 document. “For the young child, the distinctions between subjects are not relevant: what is more important is that he or she experiences a coherent learning process that accommodates a variety of elements. It is important, therefore, to make connections between learning in different subjects. As they mature, integration gives children’s learning a broader and richer perspective, emphasises the interconnectedness of knowledge and ideas and reinforces the learning process.”

There have been a number of reviews of the curriculum over the years. Three subjects were selected for the last review – Gaeilge, Science and Social, and SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education.)  Praise was given to good practice such as teaching PE through the Irish language. It seems that Minister Quinn believes that the one exception to this approach should be religion. Teaching singing  or art during RE, at least according to the minister, is not at all the same thing as teaching Gaeilge during PE.

The review also states: “SPHE may be taught in three different contexts: within a positive school climate and atmosphere, though discrete time, and through an integrated approach across a range of subject areas.”

If you substitute RE for SPHE in the above quote, why is that suddenly more controversial?

The minister would probably reply that parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious instruction, which is true and should be respected. But a positive school climate and atmosphere which stems from a religious ethos is surely not a burden on anyone?


Minister Quinn has the so-called ‘standalone’ schools in his sights. He believes that where there is only one Catholic primary school in a locality, that school should be ‘inclusive’, thereby implying that Catholic schools are somehow not inclusive.

On every measure of inclusion of minority groups, from immigrants to Travellers, Catholic schools score well – not in spite of being, but because they are Catholic schools.

The rights of non-Catholic parents must be protected, but not by diluting the characteristic spirit of a Catholic school until it is no longer recognisably Catholic

Micheal Martin may also be right when he said, ‘Ruairi Quinn has a particular problem with religion and a problem with religion in our schools. I think he has to accept that parental choice is key here and should be respected.’

We are often an alarmingly passive people, but it is vital that Catholic parents make their voices heard, or the little Catholic school in a country area will soon be a thing of the past, and double time for Maths will supplant spiritual and religious teaching.