History teachers and historians have expressed concern about changes in the Junior Cycle that they say will affect the subject of history.

They say changes will result in the downgrading of the subject, which will have serious repercussions for young people's understanding of the past and the present.

Representatives from the History Teachers' Association of Ireland told an Oireachtas committee that the new syllabus would lead to many schools dropping history as a subject at Junior Cycle.

They said this would further reduce numbers taking the subject at Leaving Certificate level.

The new Junior Cycle syllabus is to be introduced in schools on a phased basis from next year.

It reduces the number of mandatory subjects in schools and means that from 2017 history will no longer be compulsory in any school.

Currently the subject is mandatory in more than half of schools, but in practice more than 90% of children study it at Junior Cycle.

Addressing the committee, historian Diarmuid Ferriter said it would be a cruel irony if history as a subject was downgraded during the decade of commemorations of events such as the 1913 lockout and the 1916 rising.

He said he had concerns that downgrading the subject would lead to a class divide, with working class children far less likely to be offered the subject at school.

History is far too important to be left to the historians or to an elite, he said.

Historian Catriona Crowe said Ireland should not repeat slavishly the mistakes of its neighbour England.

England is about to reintroduce history as a compulsory subject having removed it in recent years.

She said it would be a fundamental error to exclude history from a compulsory regime in schools.

It would be shutting out the opportunity for young people to learn about the past, she said.

However, Department of Education representatives pointed out that Junior Cycle history is an extremely popular subject in schools even where it is not mandatory.

Officials told the committee the changes were about making history more attractive.

They said a newly designed syllabus would be an exciting opportunity to make the subject a vibrant learning experience for students.