Study finds low levels of religious practice among initial teacher education applicants

Future primary teachers are only taking on the role of religion teaching to get into jobs despite a lack of significant enthusiasm, new research suggests.

The study by NUI Galway’s school of education found low levels of religious practice among initial teacher education (ITE) applicants.

Lead author Manuela Heinz said the findings raise critical questions about the experiences, constitutional rights and professional practice of secular and teachers or those who are non-practising Catholics.

The research published in the European Journal of Teacher Education is based on responses from half the 1,000-plus students accepted into publicly-funded primary teaching degrees in 2014, and from more than 40% of people whose college applications listed such a course as their top choice.

Although 78% of the population now identify themselves as Catholic, 90% of those who began primary teaching degrees do so. However, one-in-four of all participants in the research said they are not religious, including 22% of those identifying as Catholic.

Overall, 16% answered ‘don’t know’ to the question about if they are religious, and 1.4% labelled themselves convinced atheists. Just 63% of Catholic applicants and 58% of all who applied said they are religious. Just one-third of all applicants rarely or never attend religious services or practice their religion, but significant numbers said they have no problem or do not mind religion being part of their teaching role.

Ms Heinz said the widespread tendency to comply with the teaching of religion, rather than endorsing or rejecting, may be an ‘enculturation’ into Catholic education.

Or, she said, it might indicate that those considering or entering the profession feel they have no choice in the matter and need to be prepared to take on the role if they want to succeed, even if they are not religious themselves.

She and her fellow authors said the prospect and experience of entering a third-level learning and future professional space permeated by a religious, predominantly Catholic ethos, will cause conflicts between personal beliefs and professional requirements: “This situation will most likely result in some highly motivated and suitable individuals who are atheist, non-practising Catholics or from a minority religious background deciding against a career in teaching.”

A 2012 Irish National Teachers’ Organisation survey of 363 members found that 49% teach religion willingly - down from nearly two-thirds a decade earlier.

The number who did not oppose teaching religion rose from 12% to 20%, but the proportion who believed it should be taught during school hours fell by 20% to around two-thirds of primary teachers.

The NUI Galway study found high levels of support from all pre-service teachers, regardless of their own beliefs, for children to be taught about different faiths, worldviews and religions.

Plans for a broader primary course covering all religions, beliefs and ethics were sidelined last year because of the legal control of religious patrons over what is taught in their schools.

But a review of the broader curriculum in primary schools since 1999 could see schools given freedom to reduce significantly the 2.5 hours per week to be spent teaching religion.