Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan is seeking to amend a 50-year-old directive to primary schools which states that religious instruction is “by far the most important” part of the curriculum.
She believes “the language and tone of rule 68 is archaic and doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s primary education sector”, her department said.
The Minister, however, has stopped short of ordering the deletion of the rule as recommended by an advisory group on patronage and pluralism.
In its 2012 report, the group chaired by Professor John Coolahan said "as a first step" towards updating the rules for national schools "rule 68 should be deleted as soon as possible".
The rule states: “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.”
While accepting the thrust of the forum report, former minister Ruairí Quinn chose to leave rule 68 in place, emphasising the need to broaden religious education beyond denominational interests.
Ms O’Sullivan said she had now asked her officials “to consider how best to progress the particular recommendation relating to rule 68 in the context of the ongoing implementation of the forum report recommendations”.
There have been fresh calls for the deletion of the rule with the start of the school term. The campaign group Atheist Ireland has compiled a number of complaints from parents about inadequate opt-out procedures for children who have no choice, for geographic reasons, but to attend a Catholic school.
The group also claims religious instruction is interfering with other teaching, citing the example of a question in a popular English spelling book which asks for Jesus’s name and gives the answer as “saviour”.
The INTO primary teachers union has also called for the abolition of rule 68, saying it was "not fair" on either parents or teachers. Its spokesman Peter Mullan said he believed most schools managed the situation well but "there needs to be more clarity" from the Department.
The Department is preparing a White Paper on inclusivity which will propose new guidelines on how to manage children opting out of faith formation, especially in areas where they have no choice of school patronage.
Some 1,700 of the State’s 3,200 primary schools are in areas where there is no alternative patron to a religious, and typically Catholic, one.
For the White Paper, it has been proposed that faith formation classes be scheduled at the beginning or the end of the school day. It has also been suggested that children opting out of faith formation should have the benefit of an alternative class rather than being sent to a room for supervision.
Mr Mullan said there was “probably no one solution” to cover all schools but “a menu of possible arrangements would be welcome” to ensure all children’s rights were respected.