Non-religious students often feel like second-class citizens

Analysis: Modernising religion rules will – belatedly – help respect rights of all pupils

Parents, in theory, have a constitutional right to opt their children out of religion instruction classes in schools.

The reality is often different.

Parents say it can be close to impossible to exercise their rights, even in schools operated by the State rather than religious orders.

Children are regularly left to sit at the back of the class during religious instruction. They are often prohibited from studying other subjects. Some stipulate that wearing headphones or completing schoolwork is banned.


Take the case of Tipperary Education and Training Board (ETB). It, in theory, is a multi-denominational patron body owned by the State.

However, its policy for second-level students is that they must remain in religion class at all times and not take part in any other activity.

"The rationale for this is to ensure that no unfair advantage accrues to students opting out of religious education, but rather to ensure that all students have equality of opportunity time-wise when it comes to exam preparation during the school day," it states, according to documents obtained by Atheist Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act.

Moreover, the same organisation regards its schools as having a belief, ethos and characteristic spirit that is Catholic which “needs to addressed in all policies”.

Set to change

These rules now look set to change. Department of Education officials are finalising a circular aimed at modernising decades-old rules over the teaching of religion in community, comprehensive and Education and Training Board (ETB) schools.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has confirmed that it will require schools to have a "proper timetable of beneficial work" for children who opt out of religion.

Department officials are still finalising what this means, exactly, though it is likely to be a separate class for another subject on the curriculum.

The move is good news for many parents, and students, who have long felt they were treated as second-class citizens in an education system which was supposedly to cater to all.

It will also be welcomed by school management bodies for the sector who have been looking for the rules which govern religious instruction to be modernised.

However, it will also pose an administrative and resource headache for schools, especially if the wider demand for withdrawal accelerates. They will argue they will need extra resources to do so.

Climb dramatically

Some, privately, say numbers could climb dramatically if students have access to extra classes for exam subjects.

Department of Education secretary general Sean Ó Foglú, in a speech last year to the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools, said schools needed 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”.

More broadly, the move is likely to be seen as the latest attempt by the State to wrest back control of its schools from the Church.

Today, one in 10 of the population has no religion. More than one in three people in some parts of the State – such as Dublin City, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Galway – are non-Catholic.

As far as the State sector is concerned, at least, the education system is finally – and belatedly – catching up with the reality of the modern classroom.