In the Republic of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church has an overwhelming grip on education. More than 80 per cent of the nation's primary schools (for children aged 4-11) and half of its secondaries (ages 11-18) are run by the faith.
But the Church's dominance is being questioned, and the amount of school time devoted to preparing children for the "sacraments" of first confession, first Communion and confirmation is the latest issue to be called into question. Education minister Ruairi Quinn has publicly criticised the time devoted to religion in schools, saying that more should be given to science and PE.
At 30 minutes a day, primary schools in Ireland spend more time on religious education than those in any other nation in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Research by an Irish teaching union has suggested that some students are receiving up to nine hours of extra instruction a week to prepare them for the sacraments.
Mr Quinn has compared the time spent on religious education with the time given to science and PE - just one hour for each subject a week, among the lowest levels in Europe. "I am strongly of the belief that the education of our children must be about more than simply producing economic actors," he told a conference of Catholic school managers.
"But can we really afford to continue providing, for example, a mere 60 minutes per week of scientific instruction to our children? Or, for that matter, can we afford to maintain PE at the same level - just 60 minutes per week?"
Mr Quinn said that proposals from the Dublin archdiocese - whereby more of the sacramental preparation could take place in the local parish outside school hours - could point the way for the future. It would still preserve the "central role of the school and class teacher in faith formation", he suggested.
But Eileen Flynn, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, said that using school time to prepare students for the sacraments was not excessive. Averaged out, the time devoted to it was unlikely to reach two and a half hours a week, as preparation came in fits and starts, she said.
"It's quite conceivable that you would put in extra hours in the run-up to first confession, first Communion or confirmation, but once that was over you would start to use that flexible curriculum time for other subjects such as PE and science," she added. "If you were putting on a concert you would want to put in extra time in the week before."
Research by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation shows that, in 2002, only 18 per cent of teachers reported that sacramental preparation took more time than that officially set aside for religious education. In 2012, that figure had risen to 70 per cent. In 2002, 66 per cent of teachers agreed that children should be prepared for sacraments at school, but by 2012 that had fallen to 47 per cent.
The research also highlights a change in attitudes to religious education among teachers: the proportion of teachers who taught religion "willingly" fell from 61 per cent in 2002 to 49 per cent last year.
A spokesman for the union told TES: "This issue needs to be resolved because teachers in certain classes are under pressure to deliver both a religious and a secular curriculum where both are competing for time from each other."