Written Answers. - Denominational Schools.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

155 Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Education and Science his views on the growing constitutional difficulty with parents being compelled to send their children to denominational schools against their conscience; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19322/03]

Pupils and parents enjoy a number of legal rights regarding their choice of school for primary education. These derive from the Constitution, legislation and my Department's rules. Statutory rights to choice of school derives from the Education Act 1998, section 6 of which provides for a number of objects to which those concerned with the implementation of the Act must have regard, including promoting, "the right of parents to send their children to a school of the parents' choice having regard to the rights of patrons and the effective and efficient use of resources".

I am aware, however, that a number of issues relating to religious education are of real concern to parents. The focus on this issue has resulted from the increasingly multi-cultural nature of the schoolgoing population; the growing diversity of beliefs, values and lifestyles in Irish society; the desire of parents to arrange for their children's education in a school with a religious ethos that coincides with their own religious beliefs; the growing numbers of children attending denominational schools who are of differing faiths or of none; and the demand for increased choice.
Consideration of this concern must take account of recent legislation and curriculum changes which have acknowledged the rights of the individual with regard to values and beliefs and made provision for the wide range that now exists in Irish society. Under section 30 of the Education Act 1998, no student can be required to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student. The Act also requires that, in prescribing curricula for recognised schools, the Minister must take due account of the characteristic spirit of a school or type of school. Section 15 of the Act requires boards of management of schools to uphold and be accountable to the patron for upholding the characteristic spirit of the school including the moral, religious, social, educational and spiritual values which inform the ethos of the school.
At primary level, my Department recognises the rights of the different church authorities to design curricula in religious education and to supervise their teaching and implementation. This right is enshrined in the Education Act 1998. Consequently, although religious education is part of the curriculum for primary schools and schools are obliged to allocate 30 minutes per day for religious instruction, the content of the religion programme is determined by the patron of the school.
The revised curriculum for primary schools espouses the importance of tolerance towards the practice, culture and lifestyle of a range of religious convictions and states explicitly that the beliefs and sensibilities of every child are to be respected. Legislation has been enacted and the new curriculum is being implemented and primary school authorities are taking their responsibilities in this regard very seriously. This should alleviate some of the concerns of parents. My Department has established the new schools advisory committee, the task of which is to scrutinise applications for new schools and to advise on future provision. Part of its remit is to ensure diversity of provision and, clearly, the issues outlined above are central to its work.
At second level, a new syllabus for religious education was introduced on a phased basis in September 2000. This syllabus is concerned with understanding religion as a phenomenon in the world and is designed to be studied by students of all religious faiths and of none. It has been examined for the first time in the jun ior certificate examination this year. For the students taking this course a syllabus for religious education at leaving certificate, higher and ordinary levels, will be introduced this September for examination in 2005. Within three years, religious education will be an available option to all post-primary schools as an examination subject.