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Religion in the classroom: How other countries in the EU deal with it
Ireland is not the first country to experience these types of issues around religion and education.

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AS 96% OF Irish primary schools are religious-run, enrolment policies are coming under more and more scrutiny each September. In this three-day special series, explores the role religion plays in our classrooms and what’s being done in the sector.

The relationship between religion and primary school education in Ireland is one that is very closely knit – whether that be deemed positive or negative by some. As it stands, the Catholic church’s role in Irish society is becoming less pressing in many areas – except the classroom.

The vast majority of primary schools are religious and, as already explored, that can cause a host of issues for families who are not religious.


Ireland is not the first country to experience these types of issues around religion and education.

In Germany, growing secularisation saw an increase in the number of parents opting to take their children out of religious instruction (RI).

This led to concerns that there was no form of moral education through schooling and as a result ethics was made compulsory for students opting out of RI.

Meanwhile, in Norway religious instruction only consists of information, and does not include preaching or religious practice after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2007.

It found there had been a violation of an applicant’s rights to obtain education and teaching for their children in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

shutterstock_169126397 Shutterstock / Mark Skalny Shutterstock / Mark Skalny / Mark Skalny

Ireland’s options

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has told the Irish government that it has to provide alternatives for children who are non-religious. requested an interview with the Minister for Education Richard Bruton on 19 May to discuss possible alternatives and what he had outlined in his Admissions to Schools Bill.

On 3 June we received a reply stating:

It is not possible to facilitate an interview in the near future due the Minister’s schedule and diary commitments. But we would be happy to consider such an interview in the coming months.

We then asked for a time that would suit but received no response.  We made further contact with the Minister’s Department in July but were continually told that an interview was not possible.

North South Ministerial Meeting Paul Walsh Paul Walsh

Director of EQUATE Michael Barron told that there is broad political agreement that something needs to be done.

The organisation is working with the government to seek viable alternatives to the present system. Barron said: “The State will have to provide an alternative to children who don’t want religious indoctrination in schools.

The truth of the matter is hardly any other country in Europe teaches religion instruction the way Ireland does, most countries teach about other religions.

He added that Catholic primary schools teach children how to be a Catholic.

My understanding at the moment is that we’re the only country in Europe that allows this level of religious formation in State-funded schools during regular school hours.

shutterstock_71425378 Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images Shutterstock / Monkey Business Images / Monkey Business Images

He said that it’s important that Ireland gets religious instruction provided outside school time. When asked if he thinks this is possible in the near future, Barron said, “I think it’s totally possible.

“There’s legislation in the Dail at the moment and we’re aiming for the baptismal barrier to be gone by 2017.

That would have been unimaginable a few years ago but I think it will happen.

So how do other countries deal with religion in the classroom?

For one thing – pupils in many other developed countries spend on average half the amount of time being taught religion compared to Irish primary school pupils.

In 2012, the OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance’ report found that the average seven or eight year old in Ireland spends 10% of their time being taught religion – while the average among EU countries is 5%.

This adds up to over 91 hours a year in Irish schools and means that children in publicly-funded schools spend at least 10% of their time at school in faith formation.

Irish primary schools also have no national guidelines on how to structure the learning environment for children who opt out of religious study.

Barron said that amongst EU countries – Ireland has an unusual national school system in that 95% of state-funded schools are faith schools, and 90% of these are under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

This leaves little choice for the growing number of parents who do not want their children to learn a specific faith formation at school.

However, it’s important to note that no school system is perfect and how religion is taught is usually a direct product of the country’s history.

Data from a number of European jurisdictions was obtained by the Department of Education and Skills as part of report on patronage and pluralism in primary schools. It examined a number of areas, some which are outlined below:

Northern Ireland

  • Christianity is the main religion, mostly split between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
  • There are a total of 846 primary schools. They are all run under the control of management committees. 
  • Around 30 minutes a day is spent on religious education (RE).

Parents in Northern Ireland have the right to withdraw their child from collective worship and/or RE classes on the grounds of conscience.

It’s also recommended that pupils should be accommodated in a separate room from where the RE lesson is taking place.

Principals are required to organise their schools in such a way that pupils who are not taking part in RE are not at a disadvantage, directly or indirectly, in their participation in the rest of the activities of the school.

However, the department does not gather information on how this operates in practice. Teachers also have the right to withdraw from the teaching of RE/collective worship on the grounds of conscience.

Catholic schools provide instruction for the sacraments during school time but Catholic parents must make arrangements for their children attending other types of schools in sacramental instruction.

shutterstock_268247162 Shutterstock / SpeedKingz Shutterstock / SpeedKingz / SpeedKingz


  • About 85% of the Danish population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran religion
  • Primary schools are owned and run by the municipalities (local, self-governing regions)
  • Religious education has a recommended number of lessons equalling 30 hours per year in most grades

Children aged from six to 16 can attend Folkeskole in Denmark which are operated by the municipalities.

Private schools receive government financing regardless of the ideological, religious, political or ethnic motivation behind their establishment – but they must be free from involvement of religious or other organisations in the ownership and management of the school.

Children in public schools who opt out of the instruction in Christian studies are under the supervision of the school, but depending on their age they can be allowed to use the time as they please and can even leave the school premises.

Schools and parents can agree on other activities for the children to carry out during this time.

Preparation for religious sacraments, such as Confirmation, takes place outside school, and is not a part of the school’s activities. However, the school and the local church coordinate the preparation time and the schedule of the school to ensure this can take place.

Meanwhile, private independent schools are free to cooperate and coordinate with religious communities and can reserve time in the school day for the children to attend mass or other religious activities. Private schools are also not required to allow children to opt out of religious instruction, if the school offers it.

shutterstock_203921848 Shutterstock / KPG_Payless Shutterstock / KPG_Payless / KPG_Payless


  • About 65 to 70% of the German population are Christian – they are split between denominations of Lutheran-Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Calvinism.
  • The education system in Germany is mostly controlled by the Lander (federal states)
  • In general, there are around two hours of religious instruction per week

Growing secularisation in Germany saw an increase in the number of parents opting to take their children out of RE – which led to concerns that there was no form of moral education through schooling.

As a result, ethics was made compulsory for students opting out of RI. So while religious education is a mandatory subject in public schools for students who have certain beliefs – there is generally an ethics class for students who do not participate in religious education.

Preparation for religious sacraments is not usually offered during RI lessons; instead, the preparation takes place in communities.


  • Some 76% of the population in Norway belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church
  • Almost every primary school in Norway is State-funded (about 99.9%)

The subject Religion, Philosophies of Life and Ethics is a compulsory subject in primary education – where different religions and philosophies of life are dealt with.

In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found there had been a violation of an applicant’s rights to obtain education and teaching for their children in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

As a result, religious instruction should only consist of information, and not include preaching or religious practice.

Teaching should also be carried out in a neutral and objective manner and promote the same degree of respect and understanding for all religions and philosophies.

Parents can also withdraw their children from any subject that is ”contrary to the conscience of the parent” and that gives parents a legal opt-out.

Following written notification by parents, pupils can be exempted from attending those parts of the teaching that they, on the basis of their own religion or philosophy of life, perceive as being the practice of another religion or adherence to another philosophy of life, or that they on the same basis find objectionable or offensive.

shutterstock_336099461 Shutterstock / Syda Productions Shutterstock / Syda Productions / Syda Productions


  • About 65% of the Swedish population belong to the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran Church 
  • Most schools in Sweden (84%) are run by the municipalities – the rest are independent schools which are funded by the municipality but run by private organisations
  • Religion is part of social studies – which also included history and geography and a minimum of 800 hours are to be spent on social subjects over a nine year period. 

In Sweden, a religious organisation can run an independent school and have influence over the education in that school. However, all schools have to abide by the same curriculum and syllabi and independent schools also have to be open for all pupils alike.

According to the national curriculum:

Education should be objective and encompass a range of different approaches so that all parents will feel able to send their children to school confident that they will not be prejudiced in favour of a particular view.

As such, the education style should mean that opting out of religion is not necessary. Preparation for sacraments is not connected to the national education system and is carried out by the local church.

Read: ‘Sham baptisms’: Priests struggle with reasons behind the ceremony while parents feel hypocrital>

Read: Unbaptised and bottom of the list – frustrated and worried parents speak out>