The once familiar sight of Catholic nuns, brothers and priests in Irish schools is becoming something of a rarity and within 25 years there may not be enough members of the religious orders to conduct "any school-related function".
This is the conclusion of the education commission of the Conference of Religions of Ireland (CORI) in a paper entitled "Religious congregations (orders) in Irish education - a role for the future".
The Catholic church has played an extraordinary part in developing Irish education. It still owns nearly all primary schools, where the local bishop is the patron, and religious orders are involved in about half of the secondary schools.
But its influence is waning for a variety of reasons such as the impact of a series of sex-abuse scandals involving religious figures, the decline in vocations, and because some members of religious orders feel they should be dealing directly with poor and marginalised groups.
Thirty years ago a third of secondary school teachers were members of religious orders, but this has dropped to 753 teachers or only 5.9 per cent of the total. It is estimated that 40 per cent of the remaining nuns and brothers in the schools are within 10 years of compulsory retirement, with less than 5 per cent under 35. Schools that once had a brother or nun as head now have all-lay teaching staffs and the role of the religious orders is increasingly confined to ownership and trusteeship.
A discussion document from CORI criticises Irish education, attacking in particular the "excessive competitive and individualistic thrust" of the curriculum and assessment in secondary schools. It points out that nearly half the students in religious-run secondary schools are from middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds, yet these same schools were set up to educate the children of the poor.
It urges the remaining nuns and brothers in teaching to spell out explicitly what they see as their legacy to Irish education and to invite others to become involved in perpetuating that legacy. It suggests that they should respond in a more radical fashion to the unmet needs of the poor. The paper is a challenge to many religious orders, but especially those who run the fee-paying elite secondary schools where places are in greater demand than ever.