I propose to take Questions Nos. 81 and 87 together.
Article 44 of the Constitution and Section 30 of the Education Act 1998, provides that 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.
The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the primary school sector (2012) recommended steps that could be taken to ensure that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools to cater for children of all religions and none.
A paper, entitled "Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector: Progress to Date and Future Directions", which took account of the public consultation, was published in 2014. The paper outlined good practice and options for promoting diversity in schools in a number of areas, including the right to opt-out of religious classes.
The paper gives an overview of current practice in schools in relation to the right to opt-out of religious classes and acknowledged that each school should arrive at solutions that suit its own particular context and to engage in dialogue with parents about the arrangements to be put in place before the child starts school. Schools are encouraged to develop their own practices and policies in this regard.
Subsequently, the Catholic Schools Partnership (2015) developed a resource for Catholic schools entitled ‘Catholic Primary Schools in a Changing Ireland: Sharing Good Practice on Inclusion of All Pupils’. It gives suggestions on developing polices and sharing best practice with regard to inclusion of all pupils, which gives practical suggestions to schools in how to engage positively in inter-cultural dialogue.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, which passed second stage on 17 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.
The Department has also been working on draft legislation to provide for replacing the current Section 28 of the Education Act, 1998. The legislation will provide the statutory basis for ministerial guidelines which will form the framework for a Parents’ and Students’ Charter in every school following consultation with parents, students, recognised school management bodies and staff associations representing teachers and other appropriate bodies.
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.