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OPINION | Religious education is expendable from the curriculum - PE is not

Ciaran Bradley
Ciaran Bradley

17:57 5 May 2021

There have been a few points in my life where I've looked back on having had a Catholic education and just thought: 'It's absolutely mad that I was taught this at school.'

When we were about 15, this group of 80 or so lads in my year were brought into a room and shown a film by a - frankly mental - teacher called Mr Danes. Danes was a strange character who seemed to have found religion later in life and, like many who do, just held their nose and fully taken the plunge. Looking back, I recognise that this was an unhappy man - but this was the man that was, in part, to be in charge of our reproductive education.

Generally, he was a smart bloke, with a volcanic temper. He always wore his belt about six inches too high; the kind of bloke who had to pull down his fly to sneeze. We were lads who were in that sweet spot of adolescence where you're all elbows and Adam's apples; we could be mouthy behind a teacher's back but rarely to their face. Unless you were Mark Espie, who treated fights with Mr Danes like they were part of a personal curriculum.

Anyway, he gathered round 80 lads and showed us a film called 'The Silent Scream.' For those unfamiliar, it is effectively a Right to Life-funded abortion film designed to show the ultrasound 'reality' of the procedure. I won't go into detail - and that is probably one of the intentions of it being shown - but it was horrific, upsetting and there were no discussions whatsoever about the circumstances, the moral quandaries of where life begins, pregnancy terms or whatever it may be.

This was a part of my education on sex and reproduction. This grotesque, one-sided depiction of something we can all generally imagine formed a central plank of the 'education' we were to receive on the issue of abortion. I ought to say, this was in about 2002, not 1968. Even at the time, in the room, I looked to the teachers that were there, thinking: 'are you seriously letting this go?'

Luckily, my primary school, parents and general education had done enough to provide me with alternate views to know this was not an easy topic. But it felt, in real-time to a 15-year-old, that this was a major reason why the Church's grip on education was loosening by the day.

Religious education in Ireland

That story is not meant as one of these get-'em-interested-early introductions - it is genuinely something I think of as a true failing of a school that I felt generally educated with an eye on the men we'd become. But this snowblind, dogma-driven propaganda that we have allowed to grip our education systems for so long simply has to be opt-in rather than opt-out.

I believe there is value in learning about different religious practices and so on. But, to my mind, it should form a part of history class; an understanding of why societies formed to where they are today - rather than giving the impression that religion is as relevant now as to when the tenets of these curricula were drawn up.

The Taoiseach told Off The Ball on Tuesday: “You have a relatively short school day, and traditionally in Ireland it is the maths, English, Irish and a whole lot of other subjects.

“When you increase [PE], you take out something else.”

When it is a case of strict pragmatism - that there are only so many educational hours in the week - we should be teaching our children the outright necessity of exercise for mental and physical wellbeing. Ireland is the fourth-worst performing EU nation for physical education, averaging just 37 hours a year. That is in contrast to over two and a half hours a week on religious education. One of these needs to find a place outside the school gates.

As mentioned, we realise that schools only take children for a certain portion of the year, and that it is vital that families are taking the time to ensure kids are exercising, learning motor skills and nourished well. But having trained, dedicated PE teachers is crucial to ensuring that we stave off the timebomb of 25% of children who, according to Professor Niall Moyna, "will result in 90% of healthcare spending in 50-60 years."

Government needs to get out in front of this health crisis, while acknowledging that teachers are working at capacity. That is leaving aside the reality that religious education is falling ever-lower on the list of priorities for parents when choosing schools - but, ironically, it is a deciding factor in whether children can be educated in their walls at all. The 'baptism barrier' being removed should be just the first drive to renovate an education system that is currently failing children in a physical sense.

***

Emer O'Neill, teacher and broadcaster told Off The Ball about her time spent teaching in the United States, where students spent at least one hour a day learning physical education. In contrast, Irish schools will only do one hour per week of PE, in some cases.

Another exacerbator is the disparity in income between families at school, meaning some children gain extracurricular sports experience that creates something of a two-speed system in schools.

"There is a snowball effect because it depends on your socio-economic background as to whether you can afford to do extracurricular activities outside of school.

"A lot of it is to do with having the time to do that as well, [my son] has training sessions three times a week and thankfully my husband is great at making sure he gets to those sessions.

"If you don't have that family backbone pushing it as well [...] kids, by the time they are 12 and 13, are so behind the ones that have done a sport outside of school."

All of this has contributed to a near-unbelievable situation where 25% of primary school children in Ireland cannot run properly.

As a nation, we have to decide where our educational priorities lie. As parents, we need to keep in mind that the traits children learn now set them on a path.

We need to set an educational example that will echo for generations to come.


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