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Is a religious education better for students? We took a look

‘Catholic schools are more strict, the academic side of things follows in that pattern then.’

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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.

ONE OF THE key arguments for religious-run schools is that they are frequently among the best-performing in terms of the educational outcomes they produce.

In Ireland it is virtually impossible to comprehensively check that claim. That is because there is a massive disproportion of schools under religious control compared to secular ones.

So, while religious schools are always in the top 10 or 20 of those sending students to Trinity College or UCD, the variables are too wide to say that one is “better”.


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“Is a religious education better for students? It’s not about that,” says Marie*.

She describes herself as a “modern Irish Catholic” – she goes to mass at Christmas and Easter, but still holds profoundly Catholic views, particularly around education.

She teaches fourth classes at a school in Meath.

The way I would see it is the Catholic ethos isn’t just about indoctrination, it’s about us recognising that we can teach children more than maths.

But shouldn’t the moral guidance come from home?

“It absolutely should. But we’re in contact with the kids all day. We see their social relationships and we can advise them using the Catholic moral structure.”


Alex*, who teaches Senior Infants in a Catholic school in Kildare, says the Catholic ethos can be as much about discipline as guidance.

“Catholic schools are more strict, the academic side of things follows in that pattern then. But you can’t say one is better than the other – academically – because every child is different.

“The school routine, in my opinion, is better in a Catholic school.

But that’s my opinion only and I’m coming as a Catholic teacher in a Catholic school who is a Catholic.

Steven* who is an atheist teacher in a north Dublin school actually agrees with that.

“I have worked in a non-denominational school and a faith school and, if I was totally honest, the faith school is easier in a way.”

That is, he says, because children are given less latitude and freedom, which makes teachers’ jobs easier.

“That over-riding sense of discipline can work for a teacher.”


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Alex says that the actual teaching of religion is still largely focused on the sacraments. To that end, teaching practice is catered around preparing teachers to front-load the work to first and fifth classes.

“The communion is their first introduction to religion as opposed to quiet time or personal time. In sixth class you open up to confirmation and the Gift of the Holy Spirit is taught. But they are the two exceptional years.

“It goes back to the basis of the teaching then [that] they got in Senior Infants and first class after their communion.

“From third to fifth class, they look at their relationships – friends and how to respect to other people in a deeper way.”

Home truths

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Gillian Flanagan is a mother of three based in Stillorgan, Dublin. As a practising Catholic she is happy with the way religion is currently being taught in Irish primary schools.

She told, “We pray in our house, we go to mass, I’m happy my kids are in an environment that accepts that.”

“Christian moral values are the basis of most of our laws in this country – there shouldn’t be a conflict between good behaviour and an emphasis on good Christian values.”

Flanagan said the basis of her children’s faith “comes from me – not the school” but added that she is happy that the sacraments are prepared for during school time as she feels that after school activities are difficult for children at communion age as they are too tired to absorb what’s going on.

“My eldest is going in to do his Holy Communion next year … the fact that the communion preparation is done through school is something we are happy about.”

When asked about calls for religion to be taken out of schools, Flanagan said:

“If you look at census figures from 2011, 84% put down they are Catholic – so it’s not that unreasonable that the majority of Irish schools have a Catholic ethos, especially when religious orders are running those schools.

“The state needs to step up and build other schools and not necessarily take religion out of schools”

Daniel* disagrees. He has a child in a Catholic school, but doesn’t want them to be taught a Catholic moral code.

“He’s six and a Catholic school is the only one in the town, but why should he be taught something I don’t believe?

“It’s not that I don’t respect the ethos or what the Church is doing, it’s just…

“It’s something I’m not comfortable with, to be honest. I think the kids should learn about religions, but not just one.”

Flanagan, however, said that she is happy the ethos of her children’s school is one where Christian values are respected.

“I’m very happy that my kids are able to talk about going to mass and they don’t have 20 children laughing at them that they went to mass.”

*Names changed at request of interviewees.

By Cliodhna Russell, Sinead O’Carroll and Paul Hosford

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>

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