State schools expect many pupils to opt out of religion classes
Circular requires schools to consult with parents over alternatives to religion
While the Catholic Church plays a significant governance role in about 50 ETB schools, they were set up by the State as multidenominational schools and are obliged to reflect the needs of all pupils. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire
State-run secondary schools expect large numbers of pupils to opt out of religious instruction following a new directive that requires schools to ensure these students are allowed to study alternative subjects.
Until now, many students in secondary schools run by Education and Training Boards (ETBs) who not want to participate in religious instruction or worship are forced to sit at the back of the class or confined to the library.
However, a new Department of Education circular will require schools to consult with parents – or pupils over the age of 18 – over the option of studying alternative subjects.
The move, previously reported by The Irish Times, is aimed at reflecting the changing profile of students attending schools and a decrease in religious belief. It will potentially affect tens of thousands of students in 275 of the State’s 700-plus secondary schools run by ETBs, often termed community schools or colleges.
The new rules will not, however, affect voluntary secondary schools which are mostly owned or controlled by religious bodies.
Wishes of parents
A circular being issued on Monday by the department provides detailed guidance for ETB schools and replaces a previous circular issued in the late 1970s.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the wishes of parents will have to be established as part of the process for planning and organising of subject selection.
As a result, parents will no longer have to request a withdrawal from religious instruction. “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,” Mr Bruton said.
“This can only be achieved by consulting with parents, and including their wishes as part of the normal planning process of any school.”
Principals in these schools say the requirement to timetable alternative subjects will test the resources of schools.
Many community colleges, for example, provide two hours of religious instruction each week. These schools will need to organise alternative classes for these students.
Some principals and ETB officials, privately, expect that demand to opt out of religion will accelerate if some students are seen to have an advantage over other students in key exam subjects.
The umbrella body for ETBs has been seeking to change these rules for some time to better reflect the reality of the modern classroom.
The State has also faced criticism from 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 that found that ETBs in areas such as Tipperary, for example, have rules that 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 showed that 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”.
While the Catholic Church plays a significant governance role in about 50 ETB schools, known as designated community colleges, they were set up by the State as multidenominational 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”.