How ETBs are using word play to deny students an alternative to religion

ETB Schools and teachers that refuse to implement the directive on religion issued by the Department of Education last February are telling parents that they can’t opt their child out of Religious Education and choose another subject.

Their main excuses are to claim that the directive refers only to Religious Instruction, and not to Religious Education, because Religious Education does not involve faith formation, this is just word play.

Parents and students should not accept these excuses from their ETBs. This article outlines in detail how they are blurring very important issues to try to avoid their duty to implement the directive.

Despite Atheist Ireland’s criticism of the Department of Education and various Ministers for Education over the years, we believe that they are genuinely trying to change the culture of ETB schools. Times have changed, and the Circular Letter is a reflection of that change.

The Department of Education assured Atheist Ireland, The Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that parents could opt their children out of Religious Education, Religious Instruction, or a combination of both, in all ETB schools, and choose another subject.

For the ETBs and teachers unions to deny us this is simply a reflection of the disrespect that ETBs and some teachers have for our communities. It also shows the failure of the State Religious Education course to promote respect, diversity, and pluralism.


Contents of this article

  1. ETBs are breaching the Education Act and the IHREC Act
  2. The Right to opt children out of religion
  3. ETBs are refusing to consult with parents
  4. Religious Instruction and Religious Education are interchangeable in Ireland
  5. The Catholic Church defines Religious Education as two dimensional
  6. The Catholic ‘Grow in Love’ course in Primary Schools is Religious Education
  7. Catholic Guidelines for Faith Formation integrated into the State RE Course in ETBs
  8. Department of Education interchanges Religious Instruction and Religious Education
  9. The Campaign to Separate Church and State case
  10. A new specification for Religious Education in 2019
  11. Conclusion

1. ETBs are breaching the Education Act and the IHREC Act

ETBs are breaching the Education Act (S.15-2(a)) by refusing to comply with the directive. They are also breaching their public service duty to protect human rights under the IHREC Act 2014 (S.42). Teachers are breaching the Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers.

ETBs and teachers are giving two excuses for defying the directive.

  • Firstly, they claim that the directive refers only to Religious Instruction, and not Religious Education.
  • Secondly, they claim that Religious Education does not involve Faith Formation, because Faith Formation only takes place within Religious Instruction.
  • Also, some teacher are interrogating parents and students on their reasons for opting out, while others are simply ignoring them.

When we met the Department of Education about this last year, the Department confirmed to Atheist Ireland, The Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that parents could opt their children out of the following and choose another subject.

  1. Catholic Religious Instruction
  2. The State Religious Education Course
  3. A combination of the State Religious Education Course and Catholic Religious Instruction.

The excuses that ETBs and teachers are giving for not doing this reflect two things:

  • The influence that the Catholic Church has over the years in the education system. This influence also pervades the ETBs, which are supposed to be multi-denominational, and are supposed to be the alternative to publicly funded denominational schools.
  • The control that the Catholic Church has over teacher training, at both primary and second level.

2. The Right to opt children out of religion

Parents have a right to opt their children out of Religious Education or Religious Instruction or Sex Education, anything that they believe is against their conscience (S. 30 Education Act 1998). Religious Instruction and Religious Education are not defined in the Education Act 1998.

Section 30 of the Education Act 1998 reflects Article 44.2.4 and Article 42.1 of the Constitution. Article 44.2.4 only refers to Religious Instruction.

The only issues in relation to the Circular Letter is whether students who opt out can choose another curriculum subject.

Under the directive, the ETBs are now obliged to consult parents about what they want in relation to religion in the school, and the schools are not permitted to question parents or students on why they are opting out.

In essence, the ETBs, who are supposed to be the multi-denominational alternative to denominational schools in Ireland, are:

  1. Refusing to consult with the members of their local community which they serve;
  2. Refusing to permit the students from the communities they serve to choose another subject if they opt out of religion;
  3. Refusing to guarantee that they will not question parents and students from the communities they serve on why they want to opt out of religion.

3. ETBs are refusing to consult with parents

The Circular Letter States that:

“Ascertaining parental/pupil choice in relation to religious instruction should be integrated with the school’s processes for establishing subject choices generally.”

Many teachers are still questioning, and in some cases interrogating, parents and students who wish to opt out and choose another subject even though the Circular Letter states:

“While in respect of those who want instruction in line with the requirements of a particular religion the school may appropriately engage with the parents in relation to their religious beliefs, there is no basis for a school to intrude in that regard on the privacy of those who are opting for the alternative subject(s). The only information required is that the parent wants to opt for the alternative subject(s).”

ETB schools have not engaged with any aspect of the Circular Letter. They have not even asked parents (in accordance with the Circular Letter) their choice in relation to Religious Instruction. Instead, they have unilaterally decided for parents and students.

The Deeds of Trust, the Model Agreements, Circular Letter 79 and Circular Letter 73/74 have not been revoked in the new Circular Letter issued last February. If parents want Catholic Religious Instruction and worship, the State RE course or a combination of both, then ETB schools are obliged to provide that. That doesn’t stop them from letting students opt out and pick another subject.

One has to ask are ETBs now claiming that they don’t implement sections of the Deeds of Trust, the Model Agreement, Circular Letter 73/74 and Circular Letter 79. They really can’t have it every way.

It seems that the ETBs have a problem with consulting parents in the communities they serve, and with respecting their wishes in relation to the religious and moral education of their children. The ETBs are willing to ignore their legal obligations, in order to ensure that minorities can’t opt out and pick another subject in schools that are presented as the alternative to denominational schools.


4. Religious Instruction and Religious Education are interchangeable in Ireland

In Ireland, Church and State have always interchanged the phrases Religious Education and Religious Instruction.

The culture around religion in the Irish Education system is a reflection of Catholic Church teaching. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment are part of that culture, and they reflect the views of the Catholic Church in relation to Religious Instruction and Religious Education.

The inalienable rights of minority parents and their children under the Irish Constitution have always taken second place when it comes to religion in the education system.

The State second level Religious Education curriculum is a reflection of Catholic Church teaching on religion. The Church sees itself as having an obligation to evangelise all, even those minorities who are accessing their right to education.

The Church has influenced the language around the definition of Religious Instruction in our Constitution, because they have influenced our culture. That is how the evangelisation process of the Catholic Church works on the ground. Organisations and many teachers involved in the education system reflect that culture in their interactions with minorities. They are not reflecting a culture of human rights.

Parents can and should push back against this as it undermines our Constitutional and Human Rights, and it undermines the right to Freedom of Religion and Belief and the rights of parents to ensure that the teaching of their children is in conformity with their convictions.

The ETBs have always been heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. These days the ETBs have a legal obligation to protect human rights (Section 42 IHREC Act 2014). It is an obligation that they ignore, along with their obligation to implement the Circular Letter on religion issued by the Minister for Education.

If the ETBs took on board their legal obligation to protect human rights and eliminate discrimination, the Department of Education would not have needed to issue a Circular Letter. The ETBs would have moved to ensure that the rights of minorities are respected and protected in their schools.  The Circular Letter reflects human rights law. For the first time, the right to privacy is referred to in relation to parents and their children.

In a Document (that Atheist Ireland obtained under FOI) prepared for the ETBs on ‘Exploring and Expressing the Characteristic Spirit of publicly managed Education & Training Board schools’, it states that:

“Schools appear to have a wide range of attitudes to and arrangements for religion and religious education. The interview data let the research team to conclude that ‘Catholic/Christian values’ as part of the set of core values underpinning Characteristic spirit’ of ETB schools”

It was always intended that the course would be optional, but the ETBs made it a core subject and in many cases compulsory, because of the influence of the Catholic church. Because of this influence that is reflected in their ethos, the ETBs have never recognised and protected in a practical way the rights of minorities.

A Document that Atheist Ireland got from Dublin and Dun Laoghaire ETB is a survey from their schools which shows that in nearly all instances religion is mandatory. You can access that here FOIddletb169-1 

Another Document got under FOI from DDLETB recognises the right to opt out of religion but that has not been reflected on the ground in their schools. You can find that Document here FOIDDLETB226


5. The Catholic Church defines Religious Education as two dimensional

At Primary Level the Bishops have introduced the ‘Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education Curriculum for Ireland. This is how it defines Religious Education:

“Religious education in the Catholic Primary school consists of two distinct but complementary dimensions, namely an educational dimension and a faith formation dimension (SGN 38, 99-100).

The first dimension, most commonly referred to as curriculum religion, is focused on a form of Religious Education which focuses on the teachings and values of the Catholic Church. It enables children to learn skills of spiritual, moral and religious literacy which informs their minds and enhances their understanding of Christian faith, enabling them to develop an informed, mature response to God’s call to relationship. The Religious Education outcomes in this curriculum reflect this fir dimension.

The second dimension, faith formation forms Children’s characters in the virtues and values of Jesus; supports their faith development, and helps them to experience what it means to be a member of the Church community called to witness to Jesus in service of others (SGN 39, 101). In the context of the Catholic school, Religious Education is part of and completed by other forms of the ministry of the word (catechesis, liturgical celebration social justice activities etc.). The faith formation goals in this curriculum reflect this second dimension. However, the school as a whole has many opportunities to foster faith formation.”

As can be seen from above, the Catholic Church has broken down the teaching of religion into two dimensions. The first dimension they see as educational and the second dimension is faith formation. This is one of the reasons why the Community National Schools are insisting that Faith Formation is now outside school hours. They now refer to belief nurturing, which is a reflection of the first dimension of the views of the Catholic Church on the teaching of religion in schools. To everyone else, it can still be described as religious instruction.

The Bishops view of the first dimension as only ‘educational’ and not ‘faith formation’ is the reason why many schools, including ETBs, make the State Religious Education course at second level compulsory. The Catholic Church has decided that the ‘Religious Instruction’ referred to in Article 44.2.4 of the Irish Constitution is defined according to their teachings. Schools in general reflect this Catholic understanding, and that includes the ETBs.

At second level the State has introduced other religions in the State Religious Education course. The course focuses on Christianity and in particular the Catholic Church.

The State cannot discriminate between religions (Article 44.2.3 of the Constitution), so the curriculum Religious Education course promotes some religions to varying degrees and promotes morals through religion. Contributing to the moral education of children from Atheist and secular families through a variety of different religions is still disrespect and breaches their rights.

It is difficult to understand how anyone can believe that this type of course is not in the category of Religious Instruction. It is certainly not in compliance with our human rights obligations. Schools and teachers that make this course compulsory are breaching the Constitutional and human rights of Atheist and Secular Parents and their children, and of religious minorities that seek secular education for their children on conscientious grounds.


6. The Catholic ‘Grow in Love’ course in Primary Schools is Religious Education

An example of the interchangeable nature of Religious Instruction and Religious Education in the Irish context is that the Catholic Church refers to their ‘Grow in Love’ course at Primary Level as Religious Education, not Religious Instruction. The Bishops have stated that:

“This Religious Education curriculum was written for Irish Catholic preschools and primary schools, north and south. The curriculum has been developed to respond to the shifting cultural and educational context in which primary Religious Education is carried out today.”

At second level, the Catholic Bishops have provided a document ‘Towards a Policy on RE in Post-Primary Schools‘. This document is for schools to help plan for the Religious Education of Catholic students. The Bishops don’t refer to Religious Instruction but Religious Education. They also have said that:

“Religious Education should never be content simply to study religions as a phenomenon in Society. It should always acknowledge the faith experience of students and help them to delve deeper into the meaning of religious commitment in their lives.” (P. 156 – Share the Good News)


7. Catholic Guidelines for Faith Formation integrated into the State RE Course in ETBs

Catholic Faith Formation, (the second Dimension) of Catholic Religious Education is taught in schools that deliver the State RE course through the Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students.

This Document links the various parts of the State Religious Education course with Catholic Faith Formation. This is also used in many ETB schools, as many of them claim to either have a Catholic or a Christian ethos; parents are never informed of this.

The same practice is happening in Relationship and Sexuality education. Catholic sex education is integrated into the State curriculum course on RSE, and parents are never informed of this.

This also happens in some ETBs as they claim that they have a religious ethos ,while still claiming that they are the alternative to denominational schools. Parents are never informed that Catholic sex education is integrated into the state RSE course.

Diocesan Advisors visit non-designated Community Colleges to ensure that Circular Letter 73/74 is being implemented, and Religious Education teachers attend in-service days hosted by the Catholic Church. The ETBs do not see this as anything that non religious parents and religious minorities should be concerned or informed about. Again, they are not told that it is happening.

This practice is relegated to a footnote in an NCCA Document. In a Background Paper and Brief for the Review of Junior Cycle Religious Education, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has relegated one of the main Constitutional and Human Rights issues with regard to the State Religious Education course to a footnote on page 9 of a 47-page document.

“Within faith-based schools, Guidelines were developed to enable teachers to teach for religion and so continue to engage in faith formation, alongside teaching the State syllabus. See for example, Irish Bishops Conference, Guidelines for the Faith Formation and Development of Catholic Students: Junior Certificate Religious Education Syllabus (Dublin, Veritas, 1999)”

They failed to mention that faith-based schools are the majority, and also that ETBs (the alternative to faith-based schools) have a Catholic or Christian ethos. The NCCA also have an obligation to protect Human Rights under Section 42 of the IHREC Act 2014.

You can read about that here https://www.teachdontpreach.ie/2017/10/ncca-faith-formation/

The ETBs are not supposed to be faith schools. They are supposed to be the alternative to them. That the NCCA referred to this practice in a footnote is a reflection of the influence that the Catholic Church  has on the education system in Ireland.


8. Department of Education interchanges Religious Instruction and Religious Education

In a speech by Sean O’Foghlu (Dept of Education) in 2016 to the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools Forum, the words ‘Religious Education and worship’ were used not ‘Religious Instruction and worship’.

This ties in with the confirmation that the Department of Education gave to Atheist Ireland, the Ahymadiyya Muslim Community and the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland that students could opt out of the State Religious Education course, Catholic Religious Instruction or a combination of the two.

Mr. O’Foghlu told the Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools that:

“It is understandable how many people would consider the community schools as Catholic schools. Yet the Deed of Trust does not bestow any right to give priority enrolment to Catholics in the way a voluntary denominational school can. The school must serve the community however composed. There is an obligation to enrol regardless of faith tradition or none. Furthermore the religious education or worship to be provided is not determined by the wishes of a patron but the obligation in the Deed to provide for the religious needs of those who actually attend the school. A comparable set of obligations applies in designated ETB community colleges.”

At this stage the ETBs are not providing for the conscientious objections of many families, in various communities, who want to opt out of religion (and moral education delivered through religion) and choose another subject. Nor are they providing a basic moral education (Article 42.3.2 Irish Constitution) for those families who believe that personal moral values outside of religion are very important.

In 2010 a Research paper on ‘Parents’ Perspective on Parenting styles and Disciplining Children‘ it was found that:

“Most highly prioritised were pro-social qualities, such as person moral values and getting on with others, with over 90%of parents prioritising these characteristics.”

“In contrast, religious faith was prioritised by only a minority of parents, with just under one-third (31.7%) conveying the view that it was a ‘very important’ parental goal.”


9. The Campaign to Separate Church and State case

The Education Act does not define Religious Education or Religious Instruction according to the definitions of the Catholic Church.

In the Campaign to Separate Church and State case, Barrington J said that the Constitution distinguished between Religious Education and Religious Instruction, the former being the much wider term. He stated that the Constitution could not protect minorities by being influenced, to some degree, by the religious ‘ethos’ (General Atmosphere) of the school if parents chose to send their children to that school.

It seems to us that the ETBs are now claiming that they have a religious ethos, and that they can influence children from minorities into a religious way of life, in the schools that are supposed to be the alternative to denominational schools.

The words ‘To some degree’ do not mean that the State can promote the moral education of children from Atheist and Secular families through a formal compulsory Religious Education class. If that was the case, it would mean that non-religious parents were not protected by Article 42 of the Constitution, and that only religious parents belonging to a majority in a particular school were protected by the Constitution.

Even if the ETBs, the  ‘alternative’ to denominational schools all have a Catholic/Christian ethos, it doesn’t stop the State from issuing a Circular Letter directing ETB schools to let students opt out of a State Religious Education course and choose another subject. There is simply no basis for ETB schools to refuse to comply with the Circular Letter.

Telling parents that it is not Religious Instruction but Religious Education and that they can’t opt their child out and pick another subject is simply based on the disrespect and prejudice that they have for minorities.

It is extraordinary that the ETBs have decided to refuse to implement a particular Circular Letter on an opt-out from religion, out of all the Circular Letters that the Department of Education has issued over the years. It says a lot about them and their claim that they are inclusive, serve their communities, and are the alternative to denominational schools in Ireland.


10. A new specification for Religious Education in 2019

There is a new specification for Religious Education due to be introduced in schools in 2019. This course will still reflect Catholic Church teaching on Religious Education.

The Religious Education Development Group in the NCCA is chaired by a priest from the Mater Dei Institute. Various other groups within the education system that are refusing to implement the Circular Letter from the Dept of Education are also represented.

In 2018, nothing has changed. Catholic influence on how we as a country view morals, values, and religion in our schools is continuing in our education system. So is the evangelisation of minorities, and disregard for their Constitutional and Human Rights.


11. Conclusion

Despite Atheist Ireland’s criticism of the Department of Education and various Ministers for Education over the years, we believe that they genuinely trying to change the culture of ETB schools. Times have changed, and the Circular Letter is a reflection of that change.

The Department of Education assured Atheist Ireland, The Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that parents could opt their children out of Religious Education, Religious Instruction, or a combination of both, in all ETB schools, and choose another subject.

For the ETBs and teachers unions to deny us this is simply a reflection of the disrespect that ETBs and some teachers have for our communities, they are using word play to deny us our rights. It also shows the failure of the State Religious Education course to promote respect, diversity, and pluralism.

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