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NUI Galway Study Reveals Attitudes Towards Teaching Religion in Ireland

The School of Education at NUI Galway has carried out the first ever study in Ireland that explores the religious affiliations and religiosity of applicants and entrants to undergraduate primary Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes in Ireland. Since 96% of state primary schools in Ireland are denominational, considering religious diversity in teaching is both critically important and a complex undertaking.

The study explores the backgrounds, motivations and perspectives on the Irish education system of applicants and entrants to Initial Teacher Education programmes across Ireland. The research, published this week in the European Journal of Teacher Education, explores the religious backgrounds, religious practice and attitudes towards teaching religion of applicants and entrants to primary teacher education programmes.

While there has been much debate about the compatibility of publicly funded denominational schools with growing religious pluralism and secularism in Ireland and internationally, these debates have so far, mostly focused on equity of access to state-run schools and freedom of religion and conscience for children and their families. The position of teachers in a predominantly denominational primary school system has received much less attention in academic and policy discourse.
The study highlights the need to critically examine teaching and teacher education policy and practice.

The data gathered suggests low levels of religious practice and religiosity among ITE applicants, many of whom would prefer to teach religion using a non-confessional approach. The study raises critical questions regarding the experiences, constitutional rights and professional practice of increasingly secular and/or non-practicing Catholic teacher cohorts in a predominantly Catholic primary education system.

Lead author of the study, Dr Manuela Heinz from the School of Education at NUI Galway, said:

“Our main data collection method is an anonymous voluntary cross-sectional online questionnaire implemented annually with applicants to all state-funded Initial Teacher Education programmes across Ireland. The diversity in the ITE study addresses the data vacuum with regard to ITE cohorts’ socio-demographic backgrounds in relation to their religious affiliations, religious practice, and attitudes towards religious education in primary schools in Ireland.”

Dr Heinz continued, “In addition, we also noted a widespread tendency of complying with, rather than endorsing or rejecting, the teaching of religion with many respondents using language like ‘it’s no problem’, ‘part of the job’, ‘grand’, or ‘doesn’t bother me’ in their responses. It may be that enculturation into Catholic education and possibly positive experiences and memories of ‘no harm’ have led many to uncritically accept the status quo.

Or, alternatively, it may be that many of those considering and/or entering the teaching profession feel that they have no choice in the matter, that they need to comply and be prepared to take on the role of religion teacher if they want to succeed, even if they are not religious themselves, do not practice or believe.”

In light of the findings presented in this study, the authors conclude that the prospect and experience of entering a third level learning and future professional space that is permeated by a religious, predominantly Catholic ethos, will cause conflict between personal beliefs and professional requirements for many potential and actual Initial Teacher Education applicants and entrants. This situation will most likely result in some highly motivated and suitable individuals who are atheist, non-practicing Catholics or from a minority religious background deciding against a career in teaching.

To read the full study in European Journal of Teacher Education, click here.

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