I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to clarify the situation. My Department is preparing a circular that will provide guidance to ETB post-primary schools on the arrangements that should apply in future for students who wish to opt out of religious instruction or worship. The schools to which the Deputy refers are multidenominational schools and as such are required to provide for religious instruction according to the profile of the students who attend the school.
It may have been reasonable when the schools were established for a school to assume that its pupil population was predominately Catholic and to make arrangements for religious instruction and worship exclusively on that basis. Historically, some ETB schools also made provision for religious instruction required for pupils from local Protestant communities. Depending on their future pupil composition as multidenominational schools, ETB second level schools may have to make provision for religious instruction for those from other minority religions should it be required.
It is important that schools consult with parents and in the case of pupils who have reached the age of 18, the pupil, to find out what their wishes are in respect of participating in religious instruction and worship. This practice should also apply to the parents of pupils already enrolled in the school and not just those seeking admission for the first time.
Schools engaging with parents, or pupils where appropriate, must at the outset of the school year clearly indicate what arrangements are in place for those who choose not to participate in religious instruction. The outcome of this engagement should be integrated with the school's processes for establishing subject choices generally. Instead of waiting for a parent to request a withdrawal and then having to make alternative arrangements for the pupil for the class periods concerned, pupils who do not chose religious instruction should be timetabled by the school for alternative subjects.
Societal change with a decrease in religious belief and practice requires a change in school practice and the circular will address how those who wish to withdraw must be catered for in future. I expect the circular to issue later this year. It will also apply to community schools, in all of which ETBs are co-patrons.