Pupils in State-run secondary schools are to be given the option of opting out of religious instruction and studying alternative subjects on an annual basis.
The move is aimed at reflecting the changing profile of students attending schools and a decrease in religious belief.
It will affect tens of thousands of students in 275 of the State’s 700-plus secondary schools run by Education and Training Boards (ETBs).
The new rules will not, however, affect voluntary secondary schools which are mostly owned or controlled by religious bodies.
A new circular being finalised by Department of Education officials will provide new guidance for ETB schools – often termed community schools or colleges – on arrangements for opting out of religious instruction.
Records seen by The Irish Times state that schools who engage with parents or pupils aged over 18 "must at the outset of the school year clearly indicate what arrangements are in place for those who choose not to participate in religious instruction".
It adds: “The outcome of this engagement should be integrated with the school’s processes for establishing subject choices generally.
“Instead of waiting for a parent to request a withdrawal and then having to make alternative arrangements for the pupil for class periods concerned, pupils who do not choose religious instruction should be timetabled by the school for alternative subjects.”
At present, children who opt out of religious instruction are regularly left to sit at the back of classes and may be prohibited from studying other subjects, wearing headphones or completing schoolwork.
While the move will be welcomed by most equality campaigners, it is likely to cause challenges for some schools, especially if demand for withdrawal from religious instruction accelerates.
Many community colleges, for example, provide two hours of religious instruction each week. These schools will need to organise alternative classes for these students.
The move towards meeting the changing needs of the student population was signalled by the Department of Education secretary general Seán Ó Foglú in a speech in 2016 to the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools.
He said at the time that community schools will 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”.
Groups such as Atheist Ireland say non-Catholic children who seek to opt out of religion in community schools are regularly discriminated against under current rules.
It has pointed to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act which found that ETBs in areas such as Tipperary, for example, have rules which state that children who opt out of religion should not have access to other classes, as it would give them an "unfair advantage" over other pupils.
Records also show the head of Tipperary ETB told schools principals in 2015 that the “spirit of our schools is Catholic and this needs to be addressed in all policies”.
The Catholic Church plays a significant governance role in about 50 ETB schools, known as designated community colleges.
However, they were set up by the State as multi-denominational schools and are obliged to reflect the needs of all pupils.
Department records prepared around the new circular state that the deeds of these schools oblige them to “provide for the needs of those who actually attend the school”.
They state that, historically, it may have been reasonable for a school to assume that its pupil population was predominantly Catholic and to make arrangements for religious instruction and worship exclusively on that basis.
However, it states that where the profile of pupils demands a “different ethos, this will also be accommodated by the schools”.
It adds: “In this respect, multi-denominational schools are flexible as a model in defining their ethos based on the composition of pupils who attend the school. Consequently, this ethos may vary in different parts of the country.”
The Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, which has called for rules to be modernised, has sounded caution over the resource implications of catering to the needs of different students.
These overall changes echo comments made by the department’s secretary general Seán Ó Foglú in a speech to the Association of Catholic Schools Forum in May 2016.
In the address, he challenged schools to reflect on the impact of social change on the ethos of community schools and colleges.
“The rapid change brought about by the new Irish in terms of religious denomination and different faith traditions, allied to a decrease in religious belief and practice, challenges community schools and community colleges to reflect on the operation of the schools.”