Ireland’s Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has said the time spent on religion in primary schools should be used to improve students’ reading and math skills.

The minister was responding to complaints from school principals who claim they are having difficulties covering an “overloaded curriculum” since the recently introduced literacy and numeracy strategy, which now requires that students spend 30 minutes of school time a week developing these skills in addition to the individual subjects.

Quinn’s controversial comments, which came only a week before the start of Catholic Schools’ Week, received a swift response from Catholic bishops.

"We know in Ireland that parents will generally wish their children attend schools that support their own convictions. The church, and our Constitution, support this choice," said a spokesperson.

The Association of Catholic Priests also slammed Quinn’s comments.
"The Minister's comment will be widely interpreted as an effort to undermine religion and religious-run schools and may damage the negotiations, at present at an advanced stage, to provide a wider choice for parents.

"The Minister may be unhappy with the pace of change, and with the power of parents to influence decisions, but his unreflective comments could have the effect of placing a huge question-mark over the Minister's intentions."

At the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) annual conference, president Brendan McCabe sought official guidance from the Department of Education and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) on where schools were supposed to get the time to do the extra work.

Quinn’s response, which drew a mixed reaction from the 1,100 principals present, was that if it was up to him personally he would use the time allocated for religion.

The Irish Independent reports that although schools are only required to spend 30 minutes a day on religion, an Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) survey conducted in 2013 found more than 70 percent of teachers spent more than that, some up to nine hours a week, preparing for sacraments, such as First Communion and Confirmation.

The IPPN’s general secretary, Sean Cotrell, claimed that principals were facing “unreasonable” expectations and that students' education was being threatened with so many initiatives being rolled out by the department without time for schools to absorb and implement the changes.

Cotrell told Quinn that the biggest threat was “initiative fatigue. It is draining morale from teachers and principals. The level of expectation on principals is not just great, it's unreasonable."

At the conference, Quinn also addressed the lack of progress in transferring Catholic schools to other patron bodies, in an effort to offer parents greater choice in areas dominated by religious-run schools.

The minister acknowledged that progress was “slow,” saying he had hoped to start the process later this year but said that trying to meet that deadline was “looking increasingly problematic.”in