Community and comprehensive schools under Catholic patronage need to be prepared for a time when religious instruction and worship may not be required by students, the secretary general of the Department of Education has said.
Speaking to a meeting of the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools, Seán Ó Foghlú said the 150 or so community and comprehensive secondary schools under religious patronage are legally obliged under deeds to serve the entire community.
Many people in the past considered community schools as Catholic schools, he said.
However, rapid changes in society – including different faith traditions and a decrease in religious practice – posed a challenge for these schools to become multidenominational in nature.
“There is an obligation to enrol regardless of faith tradition or none. Furthermore the religious education or worship to be provided is not determined by the wishes of a patron but the obligation in the deed to provide for the religious needs of those who actually attend the school,” said Mr Ó Foghlú.
This did not mean these schools could not continue to serve the needs of Catholic students, he said.
Rather, it meant they must consult parents and students about matters such as religious education and worship and assess demand rather than continue to assume that all students should participate.
“The schools need to prepare for situations where a majority of students may wish to withdraw and where religious instruction and worship may be required by a minority, if at all,” said the secretary general.
He said there was a deeper conversation to be had about how ethos is determined in a community schools with Catholic patrons against a backdrop of a student body which may be increasingly secular in outlook.
The new programme for government requires that 400 schools provide non- or multidenominational education by 2030.
Mr Ó Foghlú said he believed the target was achievable, but the department would need to engage with Catholic trustees to speed up divestment.
“We all need understanding that facilitating a choice of ethical provision across the system strengthens the Catholic ethos as a pluralist option and does not attack it, since plurality means Catholic too,” he said.
“And we need to find mechanisms between us that speed up divesting and answer the needs of others within the network [of partners]. This is what real partnership will mean.”