In relation to the teaching of religion in schools, under the Constitution and in accordance with Section 30 of the Education Act 1998, parents have a right to have their children opt out of religion classes if they so wish.
The manner in which any school ensures that the right to opt out of religion classes is upheld is a matter for the school concerned.
Each individual school must determine the particular arrangements which are most appropriate in its individual circumstances having regard to local issues such as available space, supervision requirements and how the school concerned organises classes etc.
My view is that schools should consult parents and students about such matters as religious education and worship and assess demand rather than continue to assume that all students should participate. Schools need to prepare for situations where a majority of students may wish to withdraw and where religious instruction and worship may be required only by a minority.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, which passed second stage on the 17th November 2016, also includes a specific requirement that school enrolment policies must include details of the school's arrangements for any students who do not wish to attend religious instruction.
I believe this is an important measure which will help ensure transparency from the outset as to how a school will uphold the rights of parents in this regard.
On 5 December 2016, I published the General Scheme of an Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016. The Government have approved the draft outline of a new law, which will require every school to consult with parents and students, and publish and operate a Parent and Student Charter.
The Parents and Students Charter Bill essentially deals with how schools communicate with parents and will provide a greater opportunity for dealing with such issues.
The publication of this draft legislation will fulfil a key commitment in the Action Plan for Education to improve information and complaint procedures for parents and students relating to schools.
The draft legislation defines the principles that will guide how schools will engage with students and parents. Some of the issues which schools will be required to deal with under the charter include:
- Inviting feedback from students and parents and
- Providing better information about School Management and School Policies.
Following consultation with our education partners, including the National Parents Council (Primary), National Parents Council (Post Primary) and the Irish Second-level Students Union, I will finalise national guidelines on a Parent and Student Charter.
The draft Bill will now go to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills for pre-legislative scrutiny.