Students in State schools will be ‘forced’ to study religion under new rules

Department of Education accused of ‘capitulating’ to lobbying on religion rules

Minister for Education Richard Bruton says a new  circular on the rules around religious tuition will bring clarification to schools. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton says a new circular on the rules around religious tuition will bring clarification to schools. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.

 

CARL O’BRIEN, Education Editor

School students in State schools will be forced to study religion on foot of a new directive, it has been claimed.

The Department of Education issued a circular to schools on Friday aimed at clarifying the rules around religious tuition.

The new directive advises that students will be automatically opted out of “religious instruction,” such as faith formation and worship.

However, there will be no opt-out available for the State-approved “religious education” curriculum, which teaches students about a range of religions and beliefs.

The changes will affect about 160,000 secondary school students, or almost half the secondary school population, in Education and Training Board (ETB) and community schools.

The new rules clarify a circular issued earlier this year which directed schools to ensure children who opted out of religion would be timetabled for other subjects.

However, these rules were resisted by groups such as the Catholic Church, religion teachers and the ETB sector. They argued that the rules were impractical and could not be implemented.

Atheist Ireland said the new circular has “trampled on the rights of students” who want to opt out of State religion classes.

“The Government seems to have capitulated in the face of lobbying on this... the position of students is worse now than it was before,” said Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland.

“Students have a constitutional right to drop out of religion and a human right. This circular seeks to stop that.”

In a statement, the Department of Education said the issue of an opt-out for the State’s religious syllabus did not arise.

This was because it was an examinable subject just like history or geography, it said.

The State religious syllabus. it said, aimed to help students “understand, respect and appreciate people’s expression 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.”

“Crucially, it is not delivered from any one religious perspective,” the Department added.

In a statement, Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the circular will bring clarification to schools on this new approach.

“It is important that in our State-run ETB and community post primary schools operate as multi-denominational schools and that the NCCA [National Council for Curriculum and Assessment] religious education curriculum, is not taught with any element of religious instruction or worship and that where religious instruction is provided attendance is confined to those who request to attend,” he said.