A new study has been carried out on the Community National School model by Trinity sociologists. It is the first systematic study on this school sector. The study which includes the views of pupils, teachers and principals found that pupils themselves don’t want to be separated according to their religion and prefer a whole-classroom approach.
Community National Schools which are part of the reconfiguration process of Catholic schools are multi-denominational and according to their mission statements aim at providing equal and inclusive education to children from all faiths. There are currently 11 in the country with a new one opening near Killarney in September 2017, and numbers are expected to grow.
The research shows that the approach to religious education classes in Community National Schools enabled pupils to engage in learning about religion and learning from their peers. The study focuses on children’s agency, their ability to understand their own world and act on it. It finds that children’s agency in religious education is critical for learning about different faith traditions and it is essential that schools enable pupils and empower them to discuss potentially controversial issues and concerns in a secure and supportive setting.
Community National Schools follow the multi-belief Goodness me, Goodness You! (GMGY) Programme. However, teaching of the religious education programme has not been without controversy. In April 2017, its junior programme (4-9) which dedicates 20% of the GMGY time to ‘belief-specific’ teaching by separating children into four belief groups (‘Catholic’, ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘other’ for three to four weeks of the year) was suspended in most schools. It will be reviewed from September 2017 by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) following concerns raised by principals, teachers and parents. In relation to the senior curriculum (9-13), there is no separation involved and a new religious programme was implemented last September including four strands: Story, Thinking Time, What is a Community National School, Beliefs and Religions.
For the purpose of the study, 17 student focus groups were conducted, 11 interviews of each of the school principals, and 21 teacher interviews. In total 49 interviews and focus groups took place. The study was conducted in February and March, 2017.
Key Findings of the study are:
- The study showed that pupils expressed a preference for the whole-classroom approach where they would learn together in one class with their classmates of different beliefs, as opposed to being separated into ‘belief-specific’ groups. Teachers and principals also raised concerns that belief-specific teaching could not provide for all beliefs equally.
- The study found that sacramental preparation has led to a perceived privileging of Catholic students over other groups in Community National Schools. The Community National Schools offer sacramental preparation for communion and confirmation within the school day. The amount of time dedicated to preparation differed throughout the schools, largely influenced by parish demands.
- Many teachers in the study felt inadequately prepared to deliver parts of the curriculum and lacked confidence in operating in culturally and religiously diverse classrooms.
- The study found differences between urban and rural (often less diverse) locations of the Community National Schools. In some of the rural schools, the study found children would have less knowledge of other beliefs, which can be attributed both to (lack of) delivery of the beliefs component of the senior curriculum as well as the level of diversity in the school.
- The study also found that multi-ethnic friendships were widely reported throughout all schools and belief groups, with shared interests forming the basis of friendship more so than (religious) background. Pupils formed friendships around shared and common interests rather than religious or ethnic backgrounds.
Recommendations and Implications for Policy:
- The study recommended that belief-specific teaching, currently still practised in 2 of the 11 Community National Schools, should be discontinued. Many minority religion students already receive instruction in their own faith outside formal school and would be more interested in learning about different faith traditions.
- Professor Faas said: “Parents and parish priests need to play a considerably larger role in sacramental preparation, with schools wishing to support the sacraments to do so outside school time.”
- "The findings of our study call for a change of teacher training to include more intercultural and multi-faith training as core units with a view to equipping all teachers with an ability to operate in any type of primary school in the country”, Professor Faas explained.
- The researchers argued that in the absence of the same levels of diversity as found in urban areas, there is a need for a more pro-active teaching approach in rural areas to equip students with the intercultural and multi-religious skills needed in an increasingly diverse global society.
- Our finding differs from previous Irish research on friendships as a result of facilitating intercultural and multi-faith discussions and empowering pupils to learn from each other and to celebrate various festivals together in Community National Schools. Pupils also showed a high level of cultural and religious knowledge.
The research was undertaken by Professor Daniel Faas (lead researcher), Dr Aimee Smith in Sociology, and Dr Merike Darmody Adjunct Assistant Professor in Sociology, Trinity.
The Census 2016 shows 78.3% identifying as Catholics (down from 84.2% in 2011) while those identifying as having ‘no religion’ increased by 73.6% to now just under 10% of the population. The Irish primary school sector has a diversity of school types including denominational (96%), multi-denominational (3.4%) and interdenominational schools (0.6%). While cultural and religious diversity among the pupil population has grown in recent decades, not every county has a multi- or inter-denominational school which creates a scenario whereby some pupils attend schools that do not reflect their belief background.
Examples of what the pupils said:
Learning about beliefs
I want the whole class together because we talk about other religions, we don't talk about our own religions, stuff we already know, we actually want to learn stuff that's new and talk about different religions and how they celebrate – like if we celebrate Christmas, then they celebrate Eid, they celebrate different stuff to us.
High levels of religious and cultural knowledge
There's a festival called Passover, I think it's for Jews. It's about when the Jews fled from Egypt and they celebrate Passover by making food and they cook the flat bread. They do that on the big table and they eat the food – like on Christmas when you make pudding, it's kind of like that – Passover.
Ellijah: Some people worship in different ways, Christians can worship in different ways.
Matthew: When he [Ellijah] goes to church he might not confess, after he's 12, he might not confess, and I might and he might take his communion, and I might not. We believe the same thing, but in different ways.
Faith: Catholics confess their sins to the priest but in my, some Christians, confess it to God.
Friendships across religious and ethnic groups
I have different friends from all around the world, I have some from Libya, Germany, some from Nigeria, some from Ireland, some from Ghana, some from Romania, some from Poland, like all around the world, and I know that when I was on my first day of school when I was really small, everyone was so nice to me and I always try and make other people's first day of school memorable like mine was.