The future of religious education

The proposed changes in the teaching of religion are far from radical, writes Cathal Barry

Reports have been circulating in recent weeks that ‘radical changes’ are on the way in the teaching of religion in Catholic primary schools.

This is in light of a proposed new religious education programme, being drawn up under the auspices of the Catholic bishops, which allocates time for the formal study of faiths other than Christianity.

Key points from the draft syllabus are outlined in a submission to the Department of Education's consultation on promoting inclusiveness in primary schools. The submission was written by the chairperson of the Catholic Schools' Partnership (CSP), Fr Michael Drumm, on behalf of the CSP and the Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA).

Some media outlets have reported the changes will be a major departure from tradition in the 89% of primary schools where religion classes focus exclusively on the teachings of the Catholic Church.

However, the author of the submission has moved to play down reports that the proposed changes to the curriculum will be radical.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Fr Drumm said the new syllabus will be an “updating of the current curriculum” rather than a drastic overhaul.

He said the new curriculum’s focus will be on “how to teach religion in the cultural context in which we find ourselves in today”.

“It articulates a vision of Catholic schools open to all faiths but based on Catholic principles,” he said.

Among the new curriculum’s objectives is the need "to prepare young children for living in contact with other Christians and people of other religions, affirming their Catholic identity, while respecting the faiths of others".

The syllabus further proposes that the amount of time devoted to other religions will vary depending on the age of the children, with a maximum of two weeks per year set aside for fifth and sixth class pupils.

The time allocation for third and fourth class pupils is one week per year, while just one-and-a-half hours are set aside for the study of other faiths per year for first and second class pupils.

According to the submission, the following set of basic principles of inter-religious dialogue will guide the delivery of this inter-religious education:

  • All children in all Catholic schools have a right to learn about diverse faiths. Teaching about world faith traditions should not be based on the number of pupils who come from diverse faith in a class or school.
  • Introducing children to two or more faith traditions simultaneously or consecutively causes confusion. Children should be given accurate, clear, age and ability-appropriate information concerning the faith tradition.
  • The positive aspects of the faith tradition should be explored and the teacher should always attempt to avoid stereotypes and superficial understandings. The teacher should avoid focusing excessively on what children may perceive as unusual details of a faith tradition which may give children an unbalanced view of the faith tradition.
  • Teachers in Catholic schools should show children that there are many living faiths practised by ordinary people in contemporary Ireland. Ideally, local members of faith traditions should be invited into the Catholic school to inform the children about their religious beliefs and practices.

These changes, hardly radical, are in response to what the submission recognises as “a notable change” in the profile of those attending Catholic schools over the past decade in Ireland.

The submission notes that in that time Irish-born Catholics have been joined by children from other backgrounds, including other Catholic pupils whose parents have migrated into Ireland, and that there is also now a significant minority of children from other faiths and those whose parents profess no religious faith at all.

However, rather than diluting Catholic ethos, the document notes many Catholic schools “have been enriched as they have adapted to serve such a broad spectrum of pupils”.

The submission goes on to praise Catholic schools as “caring and inclusive communities” which have “adapted to demographic change with significant net migration into Ireland and have led the way in integrating migrants into local communities”.

“They have been leaders in areas such as special needs, social inclusion and traveller education,” it says.

An experienced former primary school teacher, Mrs Bernadette Sweetman, told The Irish Catholic that the proposed renewal and revitalisation of the religious education curriculum “must be understood in the wider context of primary education in Ireland today”.  

Mrs Sweetman considers it “crucial” in an increasingly diverse school system to help children “to be aware and respect their own human dignity and the dignity of all others, no matter the differences in ethnicity, gender or creed”.

“Ignorance of another person's reality shows disrespect for their dignity as a person.  Learning about other faiths and beliefs is therefore necessary,” she said.

Mrs Sweetman warned, however, that this should be done “through the characteristic spirit of the school, whatever that may be”.  “There is a serious need therefore for schools to be very clear as to their ethos and how this ethos is manifested in the school and wider environment,” she said.

While the new curriculum for Catholic primary schools is intended to open students’ minds to other faiths, the submission to the Department of Education by Fr Drumm on behalf of the CSP and the CPSMA makes clear that the changes do not represent a major shift away from the current syllabus’ Christocentric focus.

It states that all children in Catholic schools have a right to learn about diverse faiths and know that there are many faiths practised in Ireland. However, it is clear from reading the submission that there will be no dilution in the Catholic ethos of these schools.

Changes are needed in the teaching of religion in Catholic primary schools, and they are coming, but they will not be radical.