Submission to the NCCA concerning the primary level curriculum specifications

June 2024



We have two concerns about the draft curriculum for primary schools that we would briefly like to draw attention to in our submission. One is the treatment of religion and spirituality in the draft and the other is the increase in political content in the draft.

We believe the current curriculum treats religion in a fairer and more appropriate way than the draft curriculum, and we believe the proposed curriculum has given too much prominence to politics. We question the extent to which parents have been properly consulted about the changes.


Religion and Spirituality


The 1999 curriculum, in the chapter “Key issues in primary education”, includes a section on “the spiritual dimension” that states: “The curriculum takes cognisance of the affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious dimensions of the child’s experience and development. For most people in Ireland, the totality of the human condition cannot be understood or explained merely in terms of physical and social experience.”

It adds: “The spiritual dimension of life expresses itself in a search for truth and in the quest for a transcendent element within human experience. The importance that the curriculum attributes to the child’s spiritual development is expressed through the breadth of learning experiences the curriculum offers, through the inclusion of religious education as one of the areas of the curriculum, and through the child’s engagement with the aesthetic and affective domains of learning.” (p. 27)

We believe this is an appropriate treatment of the subject and we note that in the draft new curriculum, the above section on the “spiritual dimension” has disappeared.

Instead, it is absorbed into “wellbeing” and minimised as follows: “This competency [wellbeing] develops children’s understanding and appreciation of wellbeing and their ability to be as healthy as they can be – physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.   … It also recognises the spiritual dimension of living, which enables children to experience a sense of awe and wonder and to know that life has a meaning”. (p. 11)

However, this general mention of spirituality in the framework disappears after a few pages. The seven key competencies in the draft curriculum, which are broad and general, are developed into different subjects.

In the new draft specification of the “Wellbeing” course there is no activity or learning experience linked to spiritual wellbeing.

This is despite all the evidence that religious practice contributes to wellbeing. (Professor Patricia Casey produced for the Iona Institute a paper on this topic, called “The Psycho-Social Benefits of Religious Practice.)

As Dr Amalee Meehan, a professor of education from DCU, says in a submission to the NCCA at an earlier stage in the process: “There is a difficulty with the conception of wellbeing as a distinct curricular area. The research shows that every aspect of education, at its best, can foster wellbeing. It is important to note the strong research base identifying a direct correlation between participating in a religious tradition and wellbeing.”

While schools develop their religion and ethics education courses according to their own patrons, the positive effect that spirituality has on mental health and wellbeing should be taught in every school, and this was the case in the old curriculum.

The NCCA has proposed a reduction in time allocated for religious education while the allocated time for the “Wellbeing” subject has been doubled in comparison to the present curriculum, and new areas of learning have been introduced, such as consent, diversity in family structures, and media/digital wellbeing.

(In respect of “family diversity”, we hope individual schools, depending on their patron, will still be able to teach the importance and benefits of marriage, albeit in a way that is sensitive to all pupils).

While schools can still develop their own religion and ethics education courses according to the ethos of their patron (for example, the local Catholic bishop or Educate Together), the positive effect that spirituality has on mental health and wellbeing should be taught in every school, in our view, as is the case in the current curriculum. This can be taught in a purely factual way.



Politics in the draft curriculum

Whilst greatly downplaying spirituality and religion, the new wellbeing curriculum includes far more on politics than the present curriculum, and seems to be encouraging political activism. Is it appropriate for primary schools to be doing this? We note the same tendency in the ‘Social and Environmental Education’ course.

A new strand of the ‘Wellbeing’ course is called “community and belonging”. Under the heading of “Inclusive education and diversity”, is included the aim of: “Fostering a culture based on human rights, democracy, equity, equality, and social justice.”

Terms like “social justice” are obviously highly contested. For example, some people believe it must include respect for the right to life at all stages, while others think it must include a ‘right’ to abortion. It is impossible to teach about “human rights”, “equity”, “equality”, “social justice” and “diversity” in a politically neutral way, so how will schools teach these concepts to children and will parents be properly informed?

It might be argued that the vast majority of schools are not religiously neutral in that almost all have a denominational ethos, so why shouldn’t they politically educate children as well? But the current make-up of the school system was agreed with parents many years ago, the denominational identity of a school is completely out in the open, and when parents are asked whether they wish to divest their school to another patron body, they generally prefer the status quo.

But if a school is going to start teaching political concepts, especially in primary schools, then parents must be fully consulted about this, especially given the impossibility of teaching concepts like “equality” in a value-neutral way.

We believe that politcal education should be saved for secondary school and that when it is taught, the different views of what concepts like “justice” mean should be taught so that the curriculum cannot be accused of bias.