Allowing children to opt out of religion classes could cost the taxpayer millions
A solution emerged last night in the row over religious education in a Limerick school but it could yet prove to be an expensive lesson if significant numbers of others families follow the example set by parent Paul Drury.
His action in seeking to remove his daughter from the class in Castletroy Community College has raised a number of issues about not just parental rights but about a school's authority to prescribe a core compulsory curriculum. If large numbers take a similar stance, citing their right to withdraw their children from religious instruction, this could create a timetabling nightmare for schools.
Defenders of the religious education programme in the Castletroy school will rightly insist that there is no specific instruction involved, but for some parents the difference between religious education and religious instruction is the modern-day equivalent of arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
They simply want their children out and Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan, pictured below, backed them yesterday.
Parents do have the right to withdraw their children from religious education, she said.
School principals pointed out last night that they then have a legal obligation to make sure the opted-out students are supervised. Informal arrangements such as letting the pupil sit at the back of the class and do homework or study something else are unacceptable to a growing number of parents. Some will say they are willing to come in and supervise their own children. But that's not without risks. Insurance can be a problem, so can a rota system of parents, especially if they are supervising other people's children as well as their own.
It's not always possible to slot the opted-out pupil into another class so it can end up with the school having to provide a teacher for supervision purposes.
The concern of some educational sources last night was how many more families will come forward with the same complaint as Mr Drury. If they do in large numbers and schools have to make provision for extra teaching resources, the bill, which could eventually run into millions, will have to be picked up by the taxpayer
Mr Drury, who is from the UK, said he was surprised to be told last week by the school that religion was a mandatory subject and that it was not possible for his daughter to opt out, as she wanted to do. He said he had thought Ireland was a fully secular society and it was wrong and backward to oblige children to study religion if they did not want to, especially in a 'State-run school'.
However, Castletroy Community College is not quite a State school in the sense that many people understand the term. In effect, it is a public-private partnership between the local Roman Catholic Bishop and the Clare and Limerick Education and Training Board (ETB), which has replaced the old VECs.
Second-level education in Ireland is a complex mosaic of different types of schools. That's true also within the ETBs, which operate multi-denominational schools but also have a number of designated colleges which provide certain guarantees to partner trustees, in this case the Catholic Church. A model agreement governs a range of matters relating to the school, including religious instruction.
But these guarantees are provided without prejudice to the constitutional rights of parents and students over 18 years of age, as Michael Moriarty, general secretary of the ETB's representative body, Education and Training Boards Ireland, pointed out yesterday.
To be fair to the college, situated in a predominantly middle-class part of Limerick, it recognises the new multicultural Ireland. One of its stated aims is to engender a spirit of ecumenism and dialogue, encouraging pupils to grow in their understanding of religious traditions other than their own. Religious education as a part of its core curriculum is one way to achieve that.
It opted to use the religious education prepared by the State's advisory body, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which could by no means be described as an evangelical body for any church. Indeed, the council has drawn the ire of the conservative professor of theology in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Fr Eamonn Conway, who sees the NCCA's proposals for education about religion and beliefs at primary level as essentially offering nothing more than a "secularist understanding of religious faith".
Whatever about his misgivings, the Catholic Church itself has not publicly raised any concerns with the existing programme in Castletroy, which is aimed at getting pupils to "appreciate the richness of religious traditions and to acknowledge the non-religious interpretations of life".
The aim of this programme is laudable. Perhaps it might be better to call it education about religion and beliefs, which it what it really is.
It seems a shame in these troubled times that every pupil does not avail of the right to opt-in rather than opt-out of such a programme.