Emma O Kelly takes a look at some of the more dated elements of the "Rules for National Schools", first published in 1965.

Comments by the head of the Catholic Schools Partnership at a conference today prompted me to look up the rules that govern the running of primary schools here.

They're available online and they make for fascinating reading.

Published in 1965, its difficult to see many sections of the "Rules for National Schools" as anything other than an anachronism.

Even the language is from another era. Teachers and pupils for instance are always referred to as 'he'. That is, apart from when the rules need to mention a female teacher or "mistress" as it calls them. For example the document states that Junior Infants boys should be taught "as a rule" by "a mistress" or by an "assistant mistress" as opposed to a male teacher. I wonder what was the reasoning behind that?

But its one rule above all the others that is now causing controversy. Rule 68 deals with religion in schools. The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, which is due to publish its final report shortly, believes this rule need to be abolished entirely. The Department of Education agrees that it has to go.

At today's conference, organised by a Catholic group called the Iona Institute, Fr Michael Drumm of the Catholic Schools' Partnership urged caution however. He believes that Rule 68 certainly does need reviewing, but he doesn't want it abandoned altogether.

So what does Rule 68 say?

It begins by stating that "of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important". It goes on to say that "a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school." Its now seen, by the Forum and others, as a major obstacle to the freeing up of Irish Primary schools to fully cater for children of all religions and none.

Fr Drumm called for a new articulation of what the rule intended. He and others fear the potential loss of a distinctive Catholic ethos in Catholic schools as a result of any shake-up.

He pointed out that Rule 68 was not the only one in need of reviewing and few would argue with that.

Rule 69 for instance, which also deals with religion, calls for the denomination of each pupil to be ascertained from the parent, "the father, if possible", it adds. (We all know how unreliable mothers can be in such matters!)

The full text of the controversial Rule 68 is as follows;

"Of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject-matter, God's honour and service, includes the proper use of all man's faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use. Religious Instruction is, therefore, a fundamental part of the school course, and a religious spirit should inform and vivify the whole work of the school.

The teacher should constantly inculcate the practice of charity, justice, truth, purity, patience, temperance, obedience to lawful authority, and all the other moral virtues. In this way he will fulfil the primary duty of an educator, the moulding to perfect form of his pupils' character, habituating them to observe, in their relations with God and with their neighbour, the laws which God, both directly through the dictates of natural reason and through Revelation, and indirectly through the ordinance of lawful authority, imposes on mankind."

The final report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism was sent to Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn late last year.

It is expected to be published shortly and its sure to generate plenty of debate.

Emma O Kelly