Quinn bid to make it easier to opt out of religion
Primary school timetables could be arranged to make it easier for children to avoid religion classes under options being considered by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.
Religion classes would be at the beginning or the end of the school day so that children who are not involved don't feel excluded.
This would avoid a situation where a child was excluded from a class midway through the school day, and made to feel different.
It would also avoid the teaching of religion against parents' wishes because the school had no way of supervising the pupil outside the class.
But moving religious classes to the beginning or end of the day would pose its own challenge, including transport and supervision issues, if children were arriving or leaving at different times.
Mr Quinn has strong personal views on the place of religion in schools.
He will air his thoughts on the subject today, when he addresses the annual conference of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO).
The minister is giving a taste of his thinking on ways to ensure that schools are inclusive of children of all faiths, and none.
How primary schools deal with religion – not just teaching it, but also matters such as the display of religious artefacts –
will be the subject of a government White Paper expected later this year, setting out the direction of future policy in this area.
It springs from the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage, the body set up by Mr Quinn to examine ways that the primary sector, currently dominated by Catholic schools, can become more diverse to reflect the changing nature of society.
The forum has recommended the handover of some Catholic schools to other patrons, in the interests of offering greater choice to parents in areas where there was little or none.
Its report also raised important issues about respecting a child's rights not to receive religious instruction, regardless of which school they attend.
Mr Quinn's visit to the INTO kicks off his round of annual teachers conferences and he will follow it with an address to the Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) later today.
He will speak to the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) conference tomorrow.
The minister said he did not believe "that we should be overly prescriptive in working towards a white paper on inclusive schools", but thought that there could be more flexibility in timetabling for religion.
As well as putting religion classes at the beginning or end of the day, Mr Quinn also points to another possible option, also raised by the forum.
This would involve religion classes being held at different times for different groups in the same year.
He said this would allow students opting out of religion classes to participate in another class, although he acknowledged that such an arrangement could work better in larger schools.
Mr Quinn said that in working on proposals for a white paper, he was conscious of Ireland's constitutional and international obligations.
These require respect of the rights of children and parents in relation to education and freedom of religion.
The minister said that as part of a reasoned debate in this area, "we must begin to differentiate between faith formation, and education about religion and beliefs".
He supports a general education in schools about religion and beliefs, but believes that must be separated from the more formal religious instruction, and preparation for sacraments that takes place in Catholic schools.
Mr Quinn said that while faith formation was important for most families, and their rights were clearly outlined in our Constitution, so too were the rights of families who wished to allow their children to opt-out of this aspect of religious education.
Catholic Church authorities insist that their schools are inclusive, which Mr Quinn believes is true in many cases.
But he is critical of them for not publishing examples of "best practice".
He said it was "regrettable" that, two years after the publication of the Forum report, "we have yet to see such exemplars furnished by the Catholic Church".
"That is disappointing, but I remain convinced of the importance of having such exemplars, to help guide the approach in all of our schools," he added.
However, Mr Quinn refers to recent comments made by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin suggesting that "a more robust collaboration between the department and the church would make these things move a little quickly".
He said he was looking forward to working with him and others to develop that robust collaboration.