Religious Education Under Strain As Secular and Religious Interests Clash

religious education

Religious education (RE) in Ireland is seen as a “doss” subject as it struggles to maintain relevance amid a cultural clash between the religious and the secular, a new report has claimed. However, members of the Catholic Church have cast doubt upon the report’s findings, suggesting RE’s lack of popularity may be down to the subject not being particularly vocational.

In their report published in Teaching Theology and Religion, Professors Áine Hyland and Brian Bocking from University College Cork suggested that the quality of religious education in Ireland deserves much greater scrutiny if pupils and teachers alike were to take it seriously, the Irish Times has reported.

Noting that Irish religious education differs from that of other countries as it is introduced at an earlier age for faith formation, rather than addressing a number of religions, the authors examined parent choice and found that “while in theory children may opt out of RE classes at their parents’ request, schools can be unwilling or unable to accommodate such requests.”

They point out that Ireland “is in a process of erratic and unpredictable transition” in this regard, and that religious and secular interests are “seemingly clashing head-on”.

They have called for religious education to be opened up, and for ethics to be included in the topic. To bolster their case for reform, the authors highlight that just three percent of senior students take it as one of their final examinations before leaving school. The subject is essentially mandatory at junior level.

“This number may rise in future years, but only if schools recruit sufficient teachers with relevant expertise in the study of religions, and in fact the proportion has not risen in recent years,” they say.

The authors conclude: “An in-depth, nationwide study of classroom practice in RE in today’s Ireland has yet to be conducted and there are undoubtedly some well-informed, gifted, innovative, and inspirational teachers involved in RE, but many pupils and some teachers will describe RE as a ‘doss’ subject (not one requiring their time or attention) and experienced observers agree that there is a need for very significant improvement at all levels across the subject.”

However, religious education experts have challenged the claims made in the paper. Dr John Murray of Mater Dei Institute of Education told The Irish Catholic: “the thing that struck me about the article is that it said there was a lack of research into RE into second level schools.” When there is a “lack of research, anything said is just an impression”, he added.

“I know from personal experience of teaching that sometimes RE has a low status, but without research it’s hard to say – it’s just a guess”.

He suggested that the lack of an obvious vocational application outside the church may be putting some pupils off pursuing the subject at the upper end of their school education: “If the value of a subject is linked with getting a job then religion won’t seem serious,” he said.

And he hypothesised that the academic nature of the subject might equally be a deterrent. “It can be quite academic at Leaving Cert level,” he said, “and there can be some concern about killing the subject.”

Likewise, Dr Dan O’Connell of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick said that recent research found that primary school students enjoy religious education. He added that he is “just not sure if the research is there” to claim that senior school pupils have a low opinion of the subject.

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