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.
I believe that difficulties could be avoided if, from the outset, a school's arrangements for those students who do not wish to attend religious instruction are made clear to parents. In that regard, the Programme for Government contains a commitment to publish new school admissions legislation taking into account current draft proposals.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 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.
Furthermore another crucial way of dealing with this issue is to provide additional choice to parents and in this regard the Programme for Government includes a commitment to increasing the rate of provision of multi-denominational schools reaching 400 by 2030.
This is not to say that schools are currently doing nothing when they receive such requests from parents or that there is no advice for schools available. The follow-up paper to the Report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector which was published in 2014 outlines good practice and options for promoting diversity in all schools. The paper gives an overview of different types of arrangements that schools have put in place to facilitate those pupils who wish to opt-out of religious education.
The paper encourages school authorities to consider their policies and practices and to review whether they are taking the steps necessary to welcome all pupils and make them feel included. I understand that in the case of catholic schools, the Catholic Schools Partnership subsequently published guidelines for catholic schools in relation to the inclusion of all pupils and that this also contains suggestions on how such schools can manage the "opt-out" of religious education.
These are important steps, which alongside the circular I recently published for state multi-denominational schools, help to inform parents in an open and transparent way how their requests to have their children opt out of religious instruction are handled by schools.