Pupils who opt-out of religion to be taught other subjects
New rules to ensure ‘proper timetable of beneficial work’ for those not studying topic
Minister for Education Richard Bruton has confirmed that a new circular will insist on “a proper timetable of beneficial work” for children who opt out of religion. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire
Pupils who opt-out of religious instruction classes in community and comprehensive secondary schools must be given access to tuition in other subjects under new rules due to come into force soon.
The move will be seen by many as the latest step on the part of the State in wresting back control of the education system from the Catholic Church.
Department of Education officials are finalising a circular aimed at modernising decades-old rules over the teaching of religion in community and comprehensive schools.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton has confirmed that a new circular will insist on “a proper timetable of beneficial work” for children who opt out of religion.
The rules will affect students in more than 300 of the State’s 700-plus secondary schools.
While these schools were set up by the State as multidenominational schools, the Catholic Church plays a significant role in many of them and is often involved in their governance.
While parents have a right to opt their children out of religion classes in these schools, in practice this often does not occur.
Children are regularly left to sit at the back of the class during religious instruction and may be prohibited from studying other subjects, wearing headphones or completing schoolwork, according to parents.
Some schools run by Tipperary Education and Training Board, for example, have rules which state that children who opt out of religion should not have access to other classes, as it would given them an “unfair advantage”. They also regard themselves as “Catholic schools”.
Mr Bruton, however, insisted community and comprehensive schools are multidenominational and are obliged to service the wider community.
“We are in a process of a dialogue to sort that out with new formal arrangements,” he said.
“There is a circular to be developed later in the year which will give clear guidelines, but the intention is – and has always been –that every child that turns up should be treated as an individual whose needs are to be accommodated.”
“Instead of being seen as someone who is just opting out, the school [should] seek to accommodate those children in the best way possible.”
Senior officials say the circular is likely to insist that children be provided with access to meaningful education or a time-tabled class.
Deeds of trust
Many community and comprehensive schools are required to have two hours of religious instruction under deeds of trust. They are also required to make provision for students of all faiths and none.
The new rules will not, however, affect voluntary secondary schools which, for the most part, are owned or controlled by religious bodies.
The proposals have been welcomed by Michael Moriarty, general secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland.
However, he said the plans may require resources to implement to ensure that all children can be accommodated.
“We need to modernise the circulars which govern our schools. The old circulars talk about religious education and worship, with provision for opting out, Mr Moriarty said.
“You were either in or out. Now, the challenge in a multibelief context is to ensure that all children are engaged in something constructive which might be curriculum-based.”
But he added: “Accommodating diverse needs does have an impact on resources and that must be factored in also.”
The Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, which has called for rules to be modernised, has also sounded caution over the resource implications.