The contradiction in the ERB proposal for faith schools

by | Feb 4, 2016 | Schools

Dr Tom Finnegan from the Iona Institute on the fundamental contradiction for Catholic Primary Schools in the proposed new Education about Religions and Beliefs curriculum.

The Iona Institute promotes the place of marriage and religion in society. We defend the continued existence of publicly-funded denominational schools. We also promote freedom of conscience and religion.

What we need to know about … and talk about …

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) are conducting a public consultation about proposals for a curriculum in Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) and Ethics.  The proposal to develop a curriculum in ERB and Ethics was recommended by the Final Report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector (Coolahan et al, 2012).  The NCCA published a consultation paper in November 2015 and have invited submissions by March 30th.  They are inviting people to complete an online survey with a further option to make your own written submission.

NB – an advisory group gathered by the Council for Catechetics of the Irish Bishop’s Conference and the Catholic Schools Partnership suggest that written submissions would be the better option.

What is the NCCA proposing?

The following text is taken directly from the NCCA consultation paper (emphasis added)

ERB helps children to know about and understand the cultural heritage of the major forms of religion, belief traditions and worldviews which have been embraced by humankind. It does not nurture the belief or practice of any one religion; instead it focuses on fostering an informed awareness of the main theist, non-theist, and secular beliefs including key aspects of their cultural manifestations…

A curriculum for ERB and Ethics is for all children attending primary schools in the Republic of Ireland…

Each school patron has a right to develop a programme that supports and contributes to the ethos of their school. The Education Act (1998) 30 (2) (d), requires the Minister for Education and Skills to ensure that a ‘reasonable amount’ of time is set aside in each school day for ‘subjects relating to or arising from the characteristic spirit of the school’. A curriculum for ERB and Ethics, for all children, is separate from these programmes and is part of a new phase of work to develop the primary curriculum beginning with the areas of Language and Mathematics…

Key Concerns

Religious education in faith-based schools is inseparable from the characteristic spirit of the school. The secular world view offered by the NCCA proposal is at odds with that of a Catholic school where the Catholic faith is embraced and where the Catholic children receive religious formation and not just religious knowledge. The NCCA proposal clearly states it ‘does not nurture the belief or practice of any one religion’.  It is the difference between saying ‘Christ is the way, the truth and the life’ and ‘Christ is a way, a truth…’

The Education Act specifically requires the Minister to have regard for the characteristic spirit of the school in exercising his or her functions with regard to curriculum {section 30(2)(b)}. Further, the Minister must allow reasonable instruction time in the school day for subjects relating to or arising from the characteristic spirit of the school {section 30(2)(d)}.  There is a clear concern about Curriculum overload in regard to the NCCA proposal.

Catholic Schools are already places where children learn about other religious traditions particularly those of the children of other faiths in our schools.  Catholic schools strive to achieve best practice when it comes to inclusion.  The actual percentage of children within Catholic primary schools who are physically ‘opting out’ of the traditional ‘religion class’ is very low.  There is a clear concern that the NCCA proposal does not reflect the good practice within Catholic schools in regard to inclusion.

Regardless of where the ERB and Ethics sits in regard to the existing RE programme approved by the Catholic Church (as a stand-alone curriculum or somehow integrated with the Patron’s programme), the above concerns remain.  A faith school is defined by its faith. This is the very cornerstone of denominational education and indeed religious liberty.  While there is a legitimate need to increase the provision of non-faith schools (a need which the Catholic Church supports), this does not justify asking a faith school to take a secular view of religious education.


The final date for submissions is March 30th

Written submissions can be sent to:

Education about Religions and Beliefs and Ethics Consultation,
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment,
35 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin 2