Department of Education response to Atheist Ireland about parents’ rights and anti-abortion video

In August 2021 Atheist Ireland wrote to the Oireachtas Education Committee regarding an anti-abortion video that was shows to students during syllabus Religious Education classes. We also raised the constitutional rights of parents for their children to not attend religious instruction in State-funded schools. You can read our letter to the Oireachtas Committee here.

The Oireachtas Education Committee asked the Department of Education to respond to us directly, and to copy them in the response. In November the Department of Education responded to Atheist Ireland by email. This is the response from the Department of Education.

Dear Ms. Donnelly and Mr. Nugent

I refer to your letter of the 21 August 2021 to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science which has requested this Department to respond directly to you. Apologies for the delay in responding to your queries.

Your letter references a number of issues and I will try to address those in turn now.

At the outset, it is important to distinguish between Religious Education as an educational activity that deepens young people’s understanding of religions, whatever their background or beliefs, and Religious Instruction, understood as initiating or nurturing young people into a particular religious way of life (sometimes also referred to as faith formation or catechesis). It is not the aim of Religious Education to facilitate Religious Instruction or a type of learning that has as its aim nurturing into a particular religious tradition or set of beliefs.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) developed Religious Education Junior and Senior Cycle examination and non-examination syllabuses are intended for students of all faith backgrounds and none. The content prescribed in the syllabuses is intended to ensure that students are exposed to a broad range of religious traditions and to the non-religious interpretation of life. They do not provide religious instruction in any particular religious or faith tradition.

Junior Cycle Religious Education approved by the NCCA aims to develop the students’ ability to examine questions of meaning, purpose and relationships, to help students understand, respect and appreciate people’s expression of their beliefs, and to facilitate dialogue and reflection on the diversity of beliefs and values that inform responsible decision-making and ways of living.

Leaving Certificate Religious Education approved by the NCCA promotes tolerance and mutual understanding. It is a broad course which seeks to develop the skills needed to engage in meaningful dialogue with those of other or of no religious traditions. The programme calls for the exploration of issues such as meaning and value, the nature of morality, the development and diversity of belief, the principles of a just society, and the implications of scientific progress. Such exploration takes place in personal, local and global contexts and will be a valuable resource for the active, participatory citizenship envisaged in the aim of education.

In relation to Religious Education the Department does not require schools to include the NCCA developed Religious Education syllabuses at Junior or Senior Cycle as mandatory subjects on their curriculum. Accordingly schools have discretion to determine if they provide the subject at all or if it is to be mandatory or optional in any particular class group or year. Religious Education, where it is offered by a school, must be delivered in the timetabled class periods without any religious instruction or worship of any religion forming any part of class activity.

Currently at Primary level, Religious Education is one of 12 subjects in the 1999 Primary School Curriculum. It holds a unique position in that the responsibility for providing a programme of Religious Education rests with the patron bodies of individual schools and not the State. There are a number of patrons’ programmes within the primary school system reflecting the diversity of patronage. Some of these are denominational or religious in nature, emphasising the place of children’s faith, spiritual and moral development in their lives. Other patrons’ programmes are ethical in nature and emphasise fostering children’s understanding of ethics and values.

Schools have the option to offer the religion education subject as part its range of subjects. In accordance with Section 30 of the Education Act, 1998, parents have a right to have their children opt out of religious education classes if they so wish. The manner in which any school ensures that the right to opt out of religion education classes is upheld is a matter for the school concerned. Each individual school must determine the particular arrangements which are most appropriate in its individual circumstances having regard to local issues such as available space, supervision requirements and how the school concerned organises classes etc.

The Primary curriculum is currently undergoing a period of review and redevelopment, led by the NCCA. The Draft Primary Curriculum Framework, which aims to support the learning and development of children from different religious backgrounds and of non-religious backgrounds, sets out the proposed purpose, structure and content of the next curriculum for primary schools. Phase one of the consultation was published in February 2020 with a focus on public and education stakeholders and concluded at the end of January 2021. Phase 2 will take place during the 2021/2022 school year and will focus on consulting with teachers, school leaders, parents and children.

The Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) as a Department of Education funded support service has responsibility for delivering continuous professional development (CPD) supports to teachers and school leaders in areas of curriculum and policy at Primary and Senior Cycle levels.

Key to this role is the development and delivery of CPD with regard to the NCCA’s statutory curriculum comprising a number of subjects/subject areas at Primary and Senior Cycle level. Religious Education is one such subject which the PDST includes as part of the NCCA’s suite of curriculum subject specifications/syllabi. In-service supports for Religious Education as a curricular discipline appears on the PDST’s annual workplan in line with its responsibility to include all NCCA subjects in its CPD programme.

The PDST can on occasion be invited to provide inputs at various educational conferences and events. This can happen for all subjects including Religion. Any input provided by the PDST is directly connected to the curriculum and classroom methodologies/assessment.

In relation to the press reports referenced in your letter, I wish to advise that neither the Department or the PDST has any knowledge of the video referred to in the articles. For information – The Investigating Committee is the committee of the Teaching Council that looks into and gives initial consideration to complaints about registered teachers. The Committee considers the complaints in accordance with Part 5 of the Teaching Council Acts, 2001-2015 and the process is strictly private and confidential. The Teaching Council has advised the Department that it cannot provide any information relating to a complaint to any party, outside the process set out in Part 5 of the Teaching Council Acts, 2001-2015.

I trust that I have addressed your concerns and I am issuing a copy of this response to the Joint Oireachtas Committee for its information.

Atheist Ireland responded to this in December 2021. You can read our response to this letter here.


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