Despite TUI claims, the Directive on alternatives to religious education can be implemented

Recently on RTE, in a debate with Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent, the General Secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland said his Union would refuse to even try to implement the new Directive allowing students to choose another subject instead of religion in ETB schools.

The TUI’s John MacGabhann gave two arguments in support of his position. Neither of those arguments stand up to scrutiny.

In a previous article, we addressed the TUI’s claim that the Directive came out of the blue. That is simply not true.

The Department has warned ETB schools to prepare for this development for at least two years, and Atheist Ireland has met with the Department to discuss the progress of the Directive.

In this article, we outline what the Directive actually says, and we address the TUI’s claim that there are not enough resources to implement it.


1. What does the Directive do?

1(a) The background to the Directive
1(b) Consultation before the timetable is designed
1(c) What the schools can and cannot do while consulting
1(d) Designing the timetable based on the consultation
1(e) Arrangements for religious worship

2. Can the Directive be implemented?

3. Atheist Ireland is seeking a meeting with the TUI

1. What does the Directive do?

The TUI is arguing as if the Directive is adding a new subject onto an existing timetable. But that is not what the Directive is doing. The Directive is telling ETB second level schools to consult parents and students before new timetables are designed, and to then design the new timetables based on the answers to that consultation.

1(a) The background to the Directive

The Directive tells ETB schools to change the practice that they have been implementing for years, of giving religious instruction a privileged position within the timetable. As the Directive puts it:

“1. The purpose of this circular is to set out a new approach to the arrangements that are made for religious instruction and worship in the schools covered by this circular in order to ensure that the rights of children to attend the school without having to attend religious instruction will be conducted in a manner that takes account of the likelihood, given changing demographics, of an increasing number of families wanting to exercise their constitutional right to withdraw.”

“3. Past practice of assuming that the pupil body is predominately Catholic and arranging religious instruction accordingly is no longer an appropriate approach. In a changing context the constitutional right not to attend religious instruction must be given effect through changed practices. The key change is that those who do not want instruction in line with the requirements of any particular religion should be timetabled for alternative tuition throughout the school year rather than supervised study or other activities.”

It is important to note here that it was the ETB schools themselves, including TUI members on the boards of management, who decided to give religion the privileged position that this Directive is ending. In many cases, ETB schools have misled parents and students into believing that religion was compulsory. This Directive is not creating new rights for students. It is simply vindicating rights that they have always had. In addition since 2014 all ETBs are obliged to ‘eliminate discrimination’ and ‘protect the human rights of its members, staff and the persons to whom it provides services’, (IHREC Act 2014 Section  42(1) ).

1(b) Consultation before the timetable is designed

Before the timetable is designed, the school must ask parents (or students if they are over eighteen) what subjects the students want to study for their Junior Cert or Leaving Cert. As the Directive puts it:

“4. In future instead of waiting for a parent to request a withdrawal and then having to make alternative arrangements for the pupil for the class periods concerned a school must establish the wishes of parents in relation to opting out of religious worship or instruction and where the pupil is over 18 establish the pupil’s wishes. Ascertaining parental/pupil choice in relation to religious instruction should be integrated with the school’s processes for establishing subject choices generally.”

As part of this consultation, the school must ask if the student wants to study religion or another subject. So religion will no longer be treated as a core subject, but will be treated the same as any other optional subject. As the Directive puts it:

“4. In future the school must offer an alternative subject(s) for those who do not want religious instruction. Parents must be made aware that such alternative tuition is available and be asked to choose between religious instruction and the alternative subject(s) offered by the school. Once an opt-out has been expressed it should endure in subsequent years unless otherwise advised by the parents.”


1(c) What the schools can and cannot do while consulting

While carrying out this consultation, the school must comply with two conditions, based on respecting the human rights of parents and students. These two conditions were central to Atheist Ireland’s lobbying while the Directive was being formulated.

Firstly, while carrying out this consultation, the school must let parents and students know if they are integrating Catholic religious instruction and faith formation into the NCCA curriculum for Religious Education. As the Directive puts it:

“5. The NCCA developed curriculum for Religious Education currently also serves to meet the religious instruction requirements of the Catholic Church and schools can continue this arrangement for pupils whose parents elect for Catholic religious instruction or other parents who wish to follow the NCCA curriculum, and where that is the case it is important in the information provided to parents that they are made fully aware that the curriculum is not necessarily confined to learning about religions.”

Secondly, while carrying out this consultation, the school must respect the privacy of parents and students with regard to their religious or nonreligious beliefs, and must not question them about why they are making their decisions about what subject to choose. As the Directive puts it:

“4. 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).”

1(d) Designing the timetable based on the consultation

After the consultation, when the school has the answers as to what subjects the students want to study, the school must then design the timetable around those choices, taking into account that the school’s resources will affect what combination of subjects they can deliver.

In practical terms, the changes will be phased in over a period of years, as students who are already part-way through their study for Junior or Senior cycle will have already chosen the subjects that they want to study. As the Directive puts it:

“In implementing this circular, regard must also be had for current arrangements in place for curricular timetabling at Junior or Senior Cycle, and the curricular choices made by existing pupils in respect of those arrangements.”

1(e) Arrangements for religious worship

Finally, the Directive makes provision for how ETB schools must deal with religious worship, outside of the timetabled religion classes. As the Directive puts it:

“Best practice in relation to making appropriate arrangements for withdrawal from religious worship or events is to provide parents with information about religious worship in the school; its frequency, timing, duration and the nature of the services or events. Ideally this should be done at the start of every school year. Parents should be given the opportunity to advise the school of whether or not they want their child to participate in or be present during religious worship.”

2. Can the Directive be implemented?

This is what John MacGabhann, the General Secretary of the TUI, said in the RTE radio interview with Michael Nugent:

“Well, the simple fact of the matter Sean is that something was launched into the system by the Department, without any consultation whatsoever and without any provision for the necessary resources. So, what we have said is that, in the event that the resources are not provided, we will not be in a position to implement the Circular. We will not advise, we will instruct our members, not even to attempt to do it. There is quite frankly no point in attempting to do the impossible.”

We do not know if this means that the TUI will refuse to take part in designing the new timetables, or if it means that they will refuse to implement the new timetables if they are designed without their involvement. In either case, the TUI would be refusing to respect the Constitutional and human rights of parents and students to freedom of conscience and freedom from discrimination, on a blanket basis including in schools where it is clearly possible to respect those rights by implementing the Directive.

While in principle it may be the case that more optional subjects could imply a need for more resources in certain circumstances, this is also a timetable issue that schools deal with as a matter of course every year. Different schools already offer different numbers of core and optional subjects, and this can change from year to year based on a range of factors. Sometimes the numbers of children selecting certain options vary, requiring timetable changes. Sometimes when one teacher retires or moves to another school, their replacement may not cover exactly the same subjects and this may also imply timetable changes.

In response to a recent Dail question on the matter the Minister for Education stated that this is part of the normal processes for planning and timetabling subject choices generally.

The new arrangements will require State multi-denominational post primary schools to consult with parents to ascertain their wishes in relation to religious instruction. Schools will be required to incorporate parental choice regarding religious instruction as part of the normal processes for planning and timetabling subject choices generally. Decisions in relation to alternative subject(s) offered for those who do not want religious instruction is a matter for each school concerned.

It is conceivable that in some schools, making religion optional may imply an increase in resources that aren’t available, just like some of the factors above can sometimes create intractable timetable problems. But managing such issues is not new to the education system, and especially since most religion teachers also teach other subjects, for very many schools the changes required to make religion an optional subject will be easily manageable.

In this context, the TUI had two possible options in terms of their reaction to the new Circular. One option was to fully support the constitutional and human rights of students by making best efforts to implement the new rules where possible. This would ensure equity and fairness for non-religious students and those from minority faiths. The second option was to sabotage all efforts to implement the new Circular until more teachers are provided. This would ensure that the human rights of non-religious students and those minority faiths continue to be abused, such that full equity and fairness is only available for students from a Roman Catholic background.

3. Atheist Ireland is seeking a meeting with the TUI

Atheist Ireland is seeking a meeting with the TUI to discuss this issue. We will be asking the TUI to support the implementation of the Directive, and to address any problems that arise on a case-by-case basis, rather than simply refusing to even try to implement the Directive.

Atheist Ireland has always supported the rights of teachers to not be discriminated against on the ground of religion. We have raised the rights of teachers with the Taoiseach and Irish Government, the Minister and Department of Education, the United Nations, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe. We would appreciate some solidarity from the TUI with regard to vindicating the rights of parents and students.


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