Religion teachers say opt-out rule will ‘undermine progress’

Teachers call for circular to be withdrawn or re-written to provide clarity on class content

A new Department of Education circular issued last week obliges schools to consult with parents – or pupils over the age of 18 – over the option of studying alternative subjects.

A new Department of Education circular issued last week obliges schools to consult with parents – or pupils over the age of 18 – over the option of studying alternative subjects.

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Religion teachers say a new directive to allow students to opt-out of religious instruction is leading to widespread confusion and will undermine “20 years of excellent progressive work” in schools.

Until now, many students in State secondary schools run by Education and Training Boards (ETBs) who did not want to participate in religious instruction or worship were forced to sit at the back of the class.

A new Department of Education circular issued last week obliges schools to consult with parents – or pupils over the age of 18 – over the option of studying alternative subjects.

The Religion Teachers’ Association of Ireland has written to the Minister for Education to express dismay over language used in the new circular and calling for it to be corrected or withdrawn.

It says the circular refers to “religious instruction”, without clarifying the difference between this and “religious education”.

Open to all pupils

While it says “religious instruction” relates to the teaching of a particular religion for pupils of that faith tradition, “religious education” is a much wider subject open to all pupils, regardless of their belief.

The association says religious education plays a key role in encouraging students to learn about other worldviews and to become “responsible citizens of Ireland in a contemporary, respectful and generous manner”.

The letter, by chairperson Valerie Roe, warns that the failure to distinguish between these terms has caused a “great deal of confusion” and is “ undermining 20 years of excellent progressive work by religion teachers, principals and boards of management, across all the post-primary school sectors.”

A Department spokeswoman said the word “instruction” was used because it is the language used in the deeds of ETB and community schools.

“The religion curriculum, that is being taught in ETB and community schools, has been developed by the NCCA. However, the curriculum can be taught in a way that does specifically serve the Catholic faith as well as in a way that approaches religion in a broader way. The circular will also clarify this for parents,” the spokeswoman added.

The religious teachers’ association says that while parents should have the right to request that their children not participate in religious education, the “negative tone” of the circular and the failure to state positively the opportunity offered by religious education for students to learn together about religious and other world-views was “not only a lost opportunity but inexcusable”.

‘Contribute actively’

It added: “Ireland requires young people who are informed and prepared to contribute actively to the development of an ever more aware and ethically responsible society” and that religious education has a unique contribution to make.

The association has urged Minister for Education Richard Bruton to “correct the mistaken impression” given by either withdrawing or redrafting it, or issuing a new circular “correcting” the record.

Mr Bruton said the new circular was aimed at better reflecting the needs of pupils in a much more diverse school community than was the case in the past.

He said: “It is important that ETB and community post-primary schools as multi-denominational schools, fully implement this circular as it presents an important opportunity to meet the expectations of parents and students in a changing society.

“This can only be achieved by consulting with parents, and including their wishes as part of the normal planning process of any school.”

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