Students in State schools who opt-out of religious education will not be timetabled for alternative subjects, according to a new directive issued by the Department of Education last week.
The changes will affect up to 160,000 students at post-primary level across the country, which equates to half of the secondary school population that are in Education and Training Board (ETB) and community schools.
The rules clarify a circular that was issued earlier in February this year that instructed schools to ensure that other subjects would be timetabled for students who opted out of religion.
The instructions were ignored by schools. In light of Freedom of Information documents obtained by RTÉ, it transpired that the Catholic Church and the ETB sector strongly objected to the proposed new alternative subject choice requirement.
Atheist Ireland had a meeting with the Department of Education on the 10th October. Following the meeting, Michael Nugent and Jane Donnelly on behalf of the group said:
“If any school, ETB or otherwise, tries to force a student into studying the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) course in religious education, parents and students should tell that school that it is unconstitutional, and contrary to the Education Act, for any school to force students into any course that is contrary to their conscience.”
In the most recent circular from the Department, it stated that parents must “opt in” their children to any denominational religious instruction that the schools are offering.
However, it went on to say that schools can follow the Religions Education programme, drawn up by the NCCA. This programme is not delivered from any religious perspective and “cannot have any element of religious instruction or worship.”
In a statement published to coincide with the circular, Minister for Education Richard Bruton said that it will bring “clarification” to schools on the 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,” Bruton said.
Laura Hogan, who studies Home Economics and Religion in Sligo IT said it will be difficult for schools to provide alternative subjects for students who wish to opt out:
“I think it is important for religion teachers to remember that religion is very personal, there’s no one-size-fits-all. It is about teaching students to have respect for everyone’s views so that students become open-minded members of society,” Hogan explained.
By Catherine Gallagher
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