Comment & Analysis

Faith schools face uphill battle to retain their ethos
Religion would be a second-class subject if new proposals take effect, writes Fr Eamonn Conway

The latest proposal from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) will make it very difficult for patrons and boards of management of Catholic primary schools to fulfill their legal and statutory obligation to uphold their schools’ ethos.  

The 1998 Education Act states that primary school boards “shall uphold, and be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit of the school”. 

However, boards now face proposals to reduce Religious Education (RE) to at best a second-class subject, and this in faith-based schools. 

Though technically not part of the current State curriculum as things stand, RE is included in the suggested minimum weekly time framework in the primary school classroom.

Allocation

This is set to change in the new proposals regarding time allocation by the NCCA who are seeking to divide the school timetable into two separate categories. One is ‘minimum state curricular time’ (60% of the school day). In this category, the state would set the minimum amount of time required for six key curricular areas. RE is not to be among them. 

The other category is called ‘flexible time’ (40% of the school day). This is to include discretionary curriculum time, assembly time, roll call, breaks and what is being called the ‘patron’s programme’. RE is not mentioned but presumably it is to be squeezed into this so-called ‘flexible time’. 

In considering how to respond to the proposed new curriculum, Catholic patrons will need to be attentive to four issues. 

The first is that individual schools will have responsibility for how this flexible time is divided. Boards of Management will need to become actively engaged in ensuring that RE is adequately catered for on the timetable in their schools. They will also need to put some mechanism in place to ensure the quality of what is taught. 

The second issue will be to ensure that despite the NCCA’s intention to hive off RE, it continues to be taught as integral to the curriculum as a whole. 

The old (1999) Primary School Curriculum was founded on the principle of integrated learning and teachers have always been encouraged to establish valuable connections between spiritual, moral and religious education and all the other curriculum areas. 

The Catholic Church’s position on the integral nature of religious education is not only based on an understanding of the central role such education plays in a child’s development but also on the “pedagogical principle that subject specificities are irrelevant in early childhood learning”. 

Catholics believe that God is found in all things. The new primary school programme ‘Grow in Love’ is specifically designed to encourage teachers to take a thematic, cross-curricular approach to the teaching of RE. 

However, the coalition Government’s Forum on Patronage and Pluralism recommended that “the introduction to the Primary Curriculum should be revised to ensure that, while the general curriculum remains integrated, provision is made for denominational religious education/faith formation to be taught as a discrete subject”. 

Is the Forum’s recommendation behind the new curriculum proposal? 

If RE is relegated to so-called ‘flexible time’, will it eventually become a discrete subject, as the Forum wanted? If so, this would be seriously damaging to the characteristic spirit of a Catholic school. 

The third issue facing patrons and boards of management is that with the relegation of denominational RE, the way will be paved for the introduction of Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERBE) as part of the State curriculum.

Only a couple of months ago the NCCA published the findings of their consultation on ERBE. It amounted to a resounding rejection of what they had proposed. Parents, teachers and patrons rightly dismissed the notion that there could be a neutral way to teach ‘about’ religions. If ERBE was to be introduced, Catholic parents would find their children being given at best an agnostic understanding of their own faith – and this in Catholic schools!

Despite the fact that their proposal found little traction the NCCA is continuing its efforts to introduce it by the back door. Hiving off denominational RE from the rest of the curriculum would prise that door open. 

The fourth issue for patrons and boards of management to consider is the most troubling because it is difficult to know how to deal with it. It is that regardless of what happens to RE the rest of the State curriculum is likely to undermine the distinctive Christian vision of the human person that sees ultimate human dignity and destiny as flowing from relationship with Christ.

The reality is that much of the current State curriculum implicitly teaches that individual human freedom and personal autonomy are the ‘be all and end all’ of life. This is unlikely to change in the new curriculum; in fact, it could well get worse. 

This issue needs consideration by patrons and boards as well. 

The views of parents, teachers, clergy, principals, patrons and boards of management really matter. Written submissions on the reform of the primary curriculum can be made to the NCCA up to April 28 and information is available here at:

http://www.ncca.ie/en/Curriculum_and_Assessment/Early_Childhood_and_Prim...

 

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