Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Questions (41)

Ruth Coppinger


41. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills if guidance will be issued on the way in which students can opt out of religious instruction in education training board, ETB, schools in view of reports of a de facto Roman Catholic ethos in ETB schools in County Tipperary, details supplied; if he will clarify the religious ethos of ETB schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45230/17]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

Deputy Paul Murphy is taking the next question on behalf of Deputy Coppinger.

Hopefully, the Minister will agree that what has been revealed by a Workplace Relations Commission decision and the very good work of Atheist Ireland, including getting information through FOI requests at its own expense, has exposed the unfortunate reality that ETB schools - definitely in Tipperary but it also appears elsewhere - are operating under a de facto Catholic ethos despite being State schools. Will the Minister clarify the position and issue an instruction to make it fully clear that these are State schools and that there should be no religious ethos whatsoever?

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.

An opt-out is not enough and neither are guidelines on an opt-out because it is a question of what ethos schools have. The CEO of the ETB in Tipperary told ETB school principals that the Christian belief, ethos and spirit of their schools was Catholic and this needed to be addressed in all policies. She recently stood over that claim. The Minister needs to respond to it and clarify whether it is the case. I have a copy of the religious education policy of the Central Technical Institute which is also an ETB school. It states the ethos is Christian and Irish and states: "Our community is a part of the wider community primarily composed of Roman Catholics, and the majority of our students are Roman Catholic, and the ethos of the school reflects this." It continues: "Faith formation is governed by the majority religion, 90% of the pupils being Roman Catholic." It is fair enough if there is religious education but it cannot be faith formation. There cannot be compulsory religious education that in reality is about Catholic faith formation.

The statement the Deputy is citing was made in 2015 and it was made very clear at the time by the then Secretary General that it did not accord with policy. I have clarified in my statement, not only here but on a previous occasion, that it is inaccurate. The schools to which the Deputy refers are multidenominational and there will be a circular to make that absolutely crystal clear. That does not mean they are non-denominational. They will accept people of religious belief, of different faiths and of none. They must plan for the wishes of parents and pupils to ensure their timetable reflects those wishes. That is the multidenominational provision we are making. Multidenominational does not mean those of Christian faith are not welcome in the school. They are absolutely welcome but so also are those of other faiths and none. The imperative is to accommodate all of them.

To clarify, a non-denominational school would not be a school that refuses to accept religious students. It is a school that does not have a religious ethos and one to which all people are welcome. It could include religious education but would not have the character of faith formation. Does the Minister agree there is a problem that a Roman Catholic diocesan adviser was assigned to that particular school's religious education policy and has been involved in decisions on the school?

On the opt-out, does the Minister agree that religious education cannot be faith formative? There should not be faith formation in these schools. Religious education and talking about different religions is fine but for State schools to be involved in faith formation is wrong and an opt-out will not deal with it. When it comes to the opt-out, it has to be a non-coercive opt-out. It should not be an opt-out that effectively punishes the students by putting them to the back of the class and not allowing them to do any other work. They should not just be sitting there listening to the lesson. They have to have a real, meaningful alternative.

There is a debate within the ETBs about whether faith formation should occur within the school or not. Recently the ETB group has indicated it would move to a position where faith formation would not be during school hours. ETB schools at primary level, the community national schools, welcome and celebrate all faiths. It is not that they leave religion at the school gate and wish to keep it there; they celebrate all faiths. The trend is clearly that over time faith formation would move out of the school. That has been indicated by the ETBs as the direction. They have to complete their consideration of the issue. It is an approach I favour.