Minister: A 'constitutional right' for students to have alternative to religion classes in secondary school

Students at hundreds of second-level schools will no longer have to sit through religion classes against their wishes or to take personal study time instead.

Update - 11.55am: The Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, has told Today with Sean O'Rourke this morning that schools will not be offered extra resources to accommodate students who opt to sit-out religion classes.

He said it is because a new programme will not be required to meet pupils' needs.

The Minister told Sean O'Rourke that it is a constitutional right for those who do not want to participate in religion to be provided with an alternative, meaningful programme.

He explained that Community and ETB schools will have to re-configure their timetables.

Mr Bruton said: "It's a constitutional right that those that don't want it (religious education) have to have a meaningful programme.

"So we are requiring now that schools will consult with parents so that they know in advance what are the wishes and that they reconfigure the programme.

"It reflects the ethos of these schools which were established to serve the entire community."

He said that this is a statement of principle to the approach that needs to be taken and reflects a changing need in Irish society.

Mr Bruton explained that the Admissions Bill will require schools to set out how it will deal with students who want to opt out.

10.35am: Religion in secondary schools 'not doctrinal anymore', says principal in response to opt-out for students

Gearóid O’Ciaran is the Principal of Coláiste Raitin in Bray, and he says no child should skip religion class, regardless of their faith.

Mr O'Ciaran said: "I don't think you can say you are being educated unless you know something of the nature of religion, what it is that some people believe in different religions around the world, so that at least you can join the debate.

"The religion that is done in most secondary schools is not of a doctrinal nature anymore, and it would seem a pity if young people are completely unaware of the concepts involved.

"A youngster in first year asked me the other day 'was an atheist the same as a Protestant?'"

By Niall Murray

The directive, by Education Minister Richard Bruton, will effectively make religion an optional subject in more than 300 multi-denominational second-level schools.

They include more than 80 community schools where the local education and training board are co-trustees with a religious patron, usually the local Catholic bishop.

Another 240 vocational schools are run on a multi-denominational basis by the 16 education and training boards (ETBs).

“The new arrangements will ensure that children who do not want to participate in religious instruction will no longer be sitting at the back of the class or confined to the library,” said Mr Bruton.

In a letter issuing to schools today, the Department of Education says the past practice of arranging religious instruction based on an assumption that majority of students are Catholic is no longer appropriate.

“In a changing context, the constitutional right not to attend religious instruction must be given effect through changed practices,” it said.

The key change is that those who do not want instruction in line with the requirements of any particular religion should be timetabled for alternative tuition throughout the school year, rather than supervised study or other activities.

Although specific subjects are not specified, schools are being told they must offer an alternative subject or subjects for those who do not want religious instruction. This should be done in line with the usual processes of establishing subject choices, and parents must be made aware that such an opt-out from religious instruction is available.

Asked if the schools would require or be sanctioned with any additional teaching staff to facilitate timetabling other subjects during periods allocated for religion, the Department of Education told the Irish Examiner the process is not about adding subjects to the timetable.

“It is about ascertaining the wishes of parents and reflecting those wishes in the normal arrangements involving the timetabling of choices expressed,” said a spokesperson.

Parents will also be asked if they wish their children to attend, or take part in, religious worship or other services. Parents are to be advised about the nature, frequency, timing, and duration of the services to facilitate such decisions.

A student’s parents may choose for them to opt-out of religious services, but to attend some events such as religious activities in relation to a bereavement.

The rules are to take immediate effect at the schools involved, although the department acknowledges the changes might not be possible until new timetables are in place for next autumn. It said time would also be required to establish the wishes of parents and pupils. The changes do not apply to more than 370 voluntary secondary schools run by or for religious orders, or to the nine comprehensive second-level schools.

Mr Bruton said it is important that, as multi-denominational schools, second-level community and ETB schools fully implement the rules, as they present an important opportunity to meet the expectations of parents and students in a changing society.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

KEYWORDS: education, religion


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