Pupils will have to opt in for religious instruction in State schools
Department of Education directive to affect up to 160,000 secondary school students
Students will not be able to opt out of the State-approved curriculum on religious education, which is an an examinable subject. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Parents will have to opt their children into religious instruction in State secondary schools under new directions to be issued shortly.
The Irish Times has learned that a new Department of Education circular will clarify requirements aimed at giving greater rights to non-religious and minority faith students in about half of secondary schools.
Under the new rule, there will be an automatic assumption that children are not taking religious instruction, unless parents have requested admission to the class.
The changes will affect about 160,000 secondary school students, or almost half the entire secondary school population.
Schools will be required to ensure students who do not take religious instruction are provided with another subject on the timetable, rather than being forced to sit at the back of a religion class.
However, the circular will also clarify that students will not be able to opt out of the State-approved curriculum on religious education.
This teaches students about a range of religions and beliefs, rather than any single religious perspective.
The Department of Education says this syllabus – approved by the National Council for Curriculum, and Assessment (NCCA) – cannot have any element of religious instruction or worship.
A Department spokeswoman said religious education was an examinable subject, just like other subjects such as history or geography.
“Crucially, it is not delivered from any one religious perspective,” the spokeswoman said.
She added that this State-approved curriculum aimed to help students understand, respect and appreciate people’s expressions of their beliefs, and to facilitate dialogue and reflection on the diversity of beliefs and values that inform “responsible decision-making and ways of living”.
These new rules do not apply to voluntary secondary schools, which are typically run or owned by religious groups.
Instead, they will affect all community and Education and Training Board (ETB) schools.
While the clarification is likely to be welcomed by ETB and comprehensive schools, it will likely spark anger from groups such as Atheist Ireland.
They say many schools are using the State religious curriculum to deliver faith formation.
Atheist Ireland also argues that there is evidence to show the NCCA curriculum was designed to help meet the religious instruction requirements of the Catholic Church.
The new circular clarifies a direction issued earlier this year by the department over religion, which sparked controversy and confusion.
This indicated that pupils would be able to opt out of both religious classes or religious instruction.
Atheist Ireland insisted it was assured by department officials that this was the correct interpretation.
Religious teachers, however, argued that there was a distinction between “religious instruction” – such as faith formation – and religion classes, which teach children a range of religions and beliefs.
Some schools also argued that they would not have the resources to provide additional classes for children if they opted out of religion classes in large numbers.
Despite the issuing of the circular earlier this year with “immediate effect”, the umbrella body for ETB schools advised its members to maintain the status quo in terms of the provision of religious education and opting out until clarification was received by the department.