Three weeks ago, Atheist Ireland wrote to all political parties, asking them to support the right of students to attend ETB schools without attending religion classes, and for students who do not attend religion classes to be given an alternative timetabled subject.
We have so far received responses from the following parties:
- Fine Gael
- Sinn Féin
- Labour Party
- People Before Profit
- Social Democrats
- Green Party
- Workers Party
- Renua Ireland
We have not yet received responses from the following parties:
- Fianna Fáil
The questions that we asked the political parties
The background is that, last year, the Department of Education issued a directive to ETB schools to give students an alternative timetabled subject if they opt out of religion class in ETB schools. The ETBs, the TUI, and the Catholic Church opposed that directive, and the Department responded by saying that the directive to give an alternative subject does not apply to the State curriculum devised by the NCCA.
1. We asked each of the political parties to support a list of rights that all students attending ETB schools have, under the Constitution, the Education Act, and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act, including students whose parents are atheists, members of minority faiths, or secular Catholics.We then asked two specific questions:
2(a) Many ETB schools are now making the NCCA Religious Education course compulsory for students, thus undermining the right of students to not attend that class. We ask you to support the right of students to attend ETB schools without attending any religion classes in the school, whether those classes are devised by any religious authority or by the NCCA, and whether those classes are described as Religious Instruction or Religious Education.You can read the full letter that we sent to the political parties here.
2(b) Many ETB schools are now refusing to give an alternative timetabled subject to students who do manage to exercise their Constitutional right to not attend the NCCA Religious Education course. This affects prejudicially the rights of those students, contrary to Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution. We ask you to support the right of students, who do not attend the NCCA Religious Education Course in ETB schools, to be given an alternative timetabled subject instead.
Response from Fine Gael
The issue of classes and timetables is a matter for the schools themselves in the first instance.Response from Sinn Féin
Fine Gael supports the Department requiring schools to consult with parents in relation to the arrangements for religious worship so that they would be better informed and provided with the opportunity to advise the school of whether or not they wanted their child to participate in or be present during religious worship.
Fine Gael supports the position that where a school intends to provide religious instruction/faith formation, parents must give consent before admission to the class. This means that opt-out does not arise because the parent has requested a place in the religious instruction class. Also, classes following the NCCA Religious Education syllabuses cannot have any element of religious instruction, worship or faith formation, which also means that opt-out does not arise.
This does not interfere with the legal instruments that provide for the multi-denominational basis of ETB and Community post-primary schools. It is a matter for schools to decide if they are running religious instruction classes, worship or religious events.
Fine Gael wants schools to have discretion to determine if they provide the NCCA state Religious Syllabus at all or if it is to be mandatory or optional in any particular class grouping. However, it is important that it is delivered in the classroom timetabled periods and without any religious instruction or worship of any religion and will be included in school inspections. Timetabling and the range of subject provision is a matter for schools to arrange.
Religious Education is an examinable subject just like History or Geography for example. It aims to develop the students’ ability to examine questions of meaning, purpose and relationships, 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.
This has no impact on the right of parents under the Education Act 1998 and under the Constitution to opt out of any subject for reason of conscience.
John Paul Phelan
Director of Local Elections
The Department for Education and Skills issued a directive via Circular 0013/2018 last February 2018 to the Management Authorities of community and ETB post- primary schools stating ETB schools must give students an alternative timetable subject if they opt out of Religious Instruction/Religious Education.Response from the Labour Party
Sinn Féin calls on the Department for Education and Skills and Minister Joe McHugh to fully enforce that circular immediately which now requires schools to consult with parents – or pupils over the age of 18 – over the option of studying alternative subjects should they chose to opt out of Religious Instruction/Religious Education.
Children who seek to opt out through their own choice or by preference of their parents must never be discriminated against as a result of their decision or be singled out in the classroom in any way.
We call on the Department to insist that State-run schools who are in receipt of government funding through the taxpayer, to provide an alternative for these children, in the form of another subject or subjects.
Thank you for your letter. We agree with the policies you propose.Response from Solidarity
Specifically, in relation to making the NCCA Religious Education course compulsory, the Labour Party recognises that there is a fast growing group in Ireland who hold “no religion”, as shown by Census reports. This represents 468,000 people in 2016; nearly 10% of the population; up from 5.9% in 2011. While the NCCA subject teaches about world religions, and while learning about religion can be beneficial even for non-religious people, it is wrong to make the NCCA religion subject mandatory. It is only reasonable for religious studies to be a choice, not mandatory, in secular State schools.
In relation to ETB schools refusing to give an alternative to students opting out of religion, the Labour Party agrees that alternative timetabled subjects should be provided as a matter of course. This should follow logically from making the NCCA Religious Education course optional.
Office of the Leader of the Labour Party
Solidarity councillors will be in favour of students and parents in all schools, but in particular the ETB schools, having an alternative subject to the NCCA Religious Education course. There should not be any compulsory religion course in schools, specially in what are State schools. Councillors on ETB bodies should actively advocate and advance this position.Response from People Before Profit
The right to opt-out of religion classes and courses must be made a viable reality by providing alternative arrangements in school timetables. The decision of the Minister to remove the requirement for alternative subjects in ETB schools should be reversed.
In this election Solidarity are standing on a platform of a full separation of Church and State. Religion is a personal right and should not determine access to State services. Solidarity have brought forward legislative proposals to deal with some of these issues such as the Equal Participation in Schools Bill and the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill.
On behalf of Solidarity council election campaign
Further to your letter to Richard Boyd Barrett of 29 April, People Before ProfitResponse from Social Democrats
a) supports the right of students not to attend religion classes in ETBs
b) to be given the right to an alternative class on the timetable.
for People Before Profit
We have been committed to the reform of religious control of education, including introducing a Bill to remove Section 7.3.(c) of the Equal Status Act.Response from the Green Party
We endorse all of the points, principles and rights you outline in Section 1 of your letter and specifically, we support the right of students not to attend Religious instruction classes in schools – ETB or other schools. Indeed, we made the following commitment in our Local Election Manifesto:
"We will use our position on the boards of Education and Training Boards to promote educational access for all and high education standards, and to uphold the constitutional rights of children and their parents to not attend religious instruction classes."
Additionally, we have called for measures to take religion instruction out of the school day entirely for all schools.
We believe that religion should not be compulsory and that it should be timetabled accordingly as an optional subject to ensure that students have alternatives.
Green Party supports the rights of all students attending ETB schools, including students whose parents are atheists, members of minority faiths, or secular Catholics.Response from the Workers Party
Also, Green Party supports the right of students to attend ETB schools without attending any religion classes in the school.
Furthermore, Green Party supports the right of students, who do not attend the NCCA Religious Education Courses in ETB schools, to be given an alternative timetabled subject instead.
1) We support the various rights outlined in question one.Response from Renua Ireland
2a) We support the right of students to attend ETB schools without attending any religion classes in the school.
2b) We support the right of students, who do not attend the NCCA Religious Education Course in ETB schools, to be given an alternative timetabled subject instead.
More generally, The Workers' Party believes we should have a secular state education system, entirely free from religious ownership, control or interference.
Background: In October 2018 the Department of Education & Skills issued a directive on the teaching of religion in Ireland’s State (ETB/Vocational) Schools. The directive stated that students in these schools will be automatically opted out of ‘religious instruction’, such as faith formation and worship. Students who would like to participate here would need to opt-in. Those who don’t would be provided with alternative activities.Conclusion
The directive also re-stated that there was no opt-out available for State-approved ‘religious education’. State approved religious education remains a mandatory subject in ETB schools. Religious education in ETB schools is not taught with any element of religious instruction or worship. The curriculum requires students to explore the beliefs of multiple faiths – no single faith dominates. The curriculum does not focus entirely on religion and ‘non-religious’ world-views form part of the curriculum.
Response To Atheist Ireland Request
We cannot support this request for the following reasons:
- We do not believe that the State approved Religious Education curriculum constitutes religious instruction. Where a parent or student believes that a particular ETB school is using the religious education curriculum to favour a particular religion or for indoctrination then that parent has the right to make a complaint to the school, governing ETB and Department of Education and we would support their right to make that complaint.
- The ‘Religious Education’ curriculum provides students with the opportunity to learn about the World’s major religions while avoiding indoctrination. In Census 2016 87.5% of the Irish population declared themselves to be of religious faith while 12.5% stated that they had no religion or did not state their religion. Globally, it is estimated that 93% of the population subscribe to a religious faith with an estimated 7% of the population being atheist or agnostic. Ireland is a small, open, globalised country. It is right that our young people are provided with an opportunity to learn about the faiths of people they are likely to meet, live next to and work with as adults. We believe that understanding is always better than ignorance.
- The demand for students who do not wish to participate in the Religious Education curriculum to be provided with alternative subject choices would place additional administrative and financial burdens on ETB schools when there is no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction amongst parents with the current system.
We believe the current religious education curriculum in state schools is balanced, important and does not constitute indoctrination or religious instruction. In cases where specific ETB schools may be failing to teach the curriculum as required concerned parents do have the right to make a compliant to a relevant authority and that complaint should be investigated expeditiously and any issues identified rectified. We believe that the demand to offer students alternatives to religious education would place an unnecessary financial and administrative burden on ETB schools.
We believe there are contradictions in Atheist Ireland’s stated concern for parental rights in this case and their recent submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills’ review of Religious and Sexuality Education (RSE). In that submission Atheist Ireland called for significant amendments to the 1998 Education Act which, if implemented, would ride roughshod over the rights of parents and the denominational schools they chose to help educate their children.
It could be reasonably concluded that Atheist Ireland does not take a consistent, principled-based approach to education policy but rather an ideological one.
This Friday, 24th May, we will elect Local Councillors, who will also be members of Education and Training Boards and the Boards of Management of ETB Schools.
Atheist Ireland wrote to all political parties, asking them to support the right of students to attend ETB schools without attending religion classes, and for students who do not attend religion classes to be given an alternative timetabled subject.
We have published the responses that we have received here, to give you information to consider when voting on Friday.