A Catholic primary school offering an alternative non-Catholic ethics and religious beliefs programme to pupils has said schools interested in the idea should "go for it".

Dochtuir Uí Shúilleabháin school in Skibbereen introduced the programme two years ago. The school says it has been a resounding success, with 37 of its 59 pupils opting for non-Catholic classes.

The school's patron, An Foras Patrúnachta, said while Gaelscoil Dr Uí Shúilleabháin is adhering to its Catholic ethos, it also recognises that there are parents who do not want a Catholic formation for their children, and the school is facilitating that.

On Wednesday mornings, children break into four separate groups. Two classes, divided into younger and older children, do the Alive-O Catholic programme.

Two other classes, with pupils similarly grouped according to age, study a multi-denominational programme.

Non-Catholic parents at the school told RTÉ News they did not want their children sitting in class during Catholic religious education.

More than four years ago, the school moved religious education to the end of the school day and allowed non-Catholic parents to collect their children early or put them in a homework club.

But parents say this did not work out. Some parents could not collect their children early, others could not afford to pay for the homework club.

Two years ago, the Board of Management approved the current system. Parents and staff at the school say the arrangement works very well and has become an ordinary part of the school day.

Principal Aisling Ní Néill says it means teachers delivering the Catholic programme can now do so wholeheartedly, knowing that every child in the classroom is there because their parents actively want them to participate.

She stressed that the school remained a Catholic one, with a Catholic ethos.

As the school is small, with only three teachers, one of the classes is taken by a volunteer parent, who is also a qualified teacher.

But the school points out that larger schools with more teachers should not have this problem.

The Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP), which represents primary schools run directly by the Catholic Church, said the Skibbereen school appeared to have developed a multi-denominational approach.

It stressed that the Gaelscoil was not under the direct patronage of the Catholic Church.

Asked whether it would encourage primary schools under Catholic Church patronage to offer a similar alternative to non-Catholic pupils, Fr Michael Drumm of the CSP said a new programme on religious education was being introduced in its schools.

Fr Drumm said the programme would contribute to a renewed sense of the importance of religious and moral education in the lives of the children who attend these schools.

Department describes approach as 'innovative'

The Department of Education has described the school's approach as "innovative", respecting both the school's ethos and parental choice.

In a statement, it said while such matters were for school authorities to decide, the minister had encouraged all schools to consider their practices in relation to accommodating diversity and being inclusive.

Multi-denominational approach developed by Educate Together

The school uses a multi-denominational ethics and religious beliefs programme developed by multi-denominational body Educate Together. 

Educate Together has said its ethics programme is in the public domain and is available to any school that may wish to use it.

The organisation said it would be happy to provide education and support to any teachers who wish to use its curriculum.