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Can the new NCCA Ethics Curriculum work in Ireland?

It always strikes me as odd the stories about primary education that get noticed by the media. The majority of primary schools are wonderful places and have been through a terrible time over the last number of years with severe cuts to resources for children and yet primary schools seem to be able to achieve fantastic results in spite of them. Sadly the media tend not to spend their airtime speaking about the removal of key services such as modern foreign languages, traveller resource teachers, EAL teaching posts and so on.

The media didn’t even mention the brand new language curricula that are supposedly being released very soon in English and Gaeilge, despite them being core subjects. They were almost completely silent when Aistear was unveiled for all children under six, one of the greatest (in both meanings of the word) changes to our education system. However, the merest hint of the NCCA rolling out a subject which touches on religion and the media goes crazy! During the week, my inbox was filled with headlines such as: “‘Religion time’ in Catholic schools could be cut for first ever curriculum on beliefs and ethics” and “Schools forced to cut Catholic classes” because the NCCA started a consultation on a possible new subject Education about Religion and Beliefs and Ethics or ERBE for short.

Within a day over 500 submissions to the consultation were made and radio shows were crowded with commentators trying to get their spoke into whatever bigger agenda they were trying to push.

Even if the ERBE curriculum does come to fruition, I’m not really certain of its role in the current primary school landscape. Religion and Ethics as subjects are already covered by patron bodies in primary schools for 30 minutes per day. However, all subjects that are offered by the curriculum can be altered by relevant patron bodies in order to ensure their ethos is upheld. Take the example of Relationships and Sexuality Education, (RSE for short.) The programme is supposed to offer children a programme dealing in many areas. However, the Catholic church take a position on this programme and therefore Catholic schools must provide their programme with this altered version, which makes rules such as:

The school should seek to communicate the Christian vision of human life and human relationships. This would include such fundamental ideas as the following:

  • The human body is sacred – the visible image of God.
  • The human body shows us that we are mortal and limited – dependent on God who gives and sustains our life.
  • Through our bodily nature we relate to other people in a physical world which we share. From this it follows that we are called to respect one another and to recognise in one another, ‘bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh’ (Gn 2:23).

(Guidelines on Relationships and Sexuality Education, Irish Catholic Bishops Conference)

and

In order to be faithful to the vision and ethos of a Catholic school, it is necessary that the following points should be borne in mind: The teacher will not attempt to build respect for the views of others on the false and fragile base of thinking that it does not much matter what one’s view is, so long as it is sincere

With this in mind, it is likely that any programme that attempts to deviate or be unfaithful to a Catholic schools, which is likely considering the context of the ERBE curriculum, it is most likely that the ERBE curriculum will be adapted for whatever the denominational body will deem acceptable.

Naturally, this raises the usual questions about patronage and pluralism, which I won’t rehash in this article but it also raises the need for this new curriculum at all especially if the NCCA cannot enforce it in its entirety into over 90% of primary schools in the country. Thankfully, this is a story the media will be interested in and I look forward to the debate on that in the future.

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