Catholic schools defying new law by not including opt-out details in admissions policies

The Catholic Church is still trying to undermine the right of parents to opt their children out of religion classes. They are now trying to ensure that the arrangements for opting out are kept secret and that parents are not consulted. This is contrary to the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018.

Schools are now reviewing their Admission Policies because of the above Act. Here’s what should happen.

  • The Act requires schools to consult with parents whose children attend the school regarding their Admission Policy.
  • As part of that consultation, draft Admissions Policies must inform parents of the detailed arrangements that the school has for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction.
  • Schools are then required to ensure that those arrangements are part of their Admission Policy so that parents who wish to send their child to the school can see those detailed arrangements before they fill out an application form.

Instead, here is what parents are telling us is happening.

  • Schools are saying in their draft Admission policies that parents who wish their children to not attend religious teaching should meet with the school to discuss the arrangements.
  • This wording is being suggested by the Catholic Church in a document sent to publicly funded schools under their patronage.
  • This does not comply with the requirements of the Act, which is to provide those detailed arrangements in the Admissions policy and to consult with parents whose children already attend the school regarding those detailed arrangements.

Contents of this article

  1. Constitutional Right to not attend religious teaching
  2. Legal Requirements under the 2018 Act
  3. Legal Responsibility of the Board of Management of the school
  4. Document issued to schools in the Dublin Diocese
  5. What the Document from the Dublin Diocese states
  6. Schools cannot make attending a meeting a condition of admission
  7. Legal functions of the Principal
  8. What level of detail should a policy include?
  9. What is the point of the suggested meetings?
  10. Know your rights and insist on them

1. Constitutional Right to not attend religious teaching

Under Article 44.2.4 of the Constitution students have a Constitutional Right to not attend any religious teaching in publicly funded schools. Public funding and recognition of schools are dependent on the exercise of this right. This Constitutional right is reflected in Section 30 – 2 (e) of the Education Act 1998. It is the obligation of the Minister under the Act to not require students to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parents of the student.

The new legal requirement in Section 62 (n) of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 simply obliges Boards of Management of schools to prepare, consult and provide in their Admission Policy the detailed arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious teaching which is their Constitutional right.

The only new requirement in relation to this section of the Act is that Boards of Management are now legally obliged to put this detailed information in their Admissions Policy, so that families that wish to send their child to the school are aware of the practical application of a Constitutional Right.

This new section also fulfils the requirement under Section 6 (m) of the Education Act 1998 which puts an obligation on all those concerned with the implementation of the Act to “enhance transparency in the making of decisions in the education system both locally and nationally”, and Section 15 (d) …the Constitutional rights of all persons concerned, are complied with.”

2. Legal Requirements under the 2018 Act

The Education (Admissions to Schools Act) 2018 states the following

62 (1) Subject to this Act, regulations under this Act and such terms and conditions as may be attached to recognition of a school by the Minister under section 10, the board of the school shall following consultation with the patron, parents of students attending the school, the staff of the school, and such other persons as the Minister may determine, prepare a draft admission policy in respect of the school.

(7) An admission policy shall—

“(n) provide details of the school’s arrangements in respect of any student, where the parent of that student, or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student, has requested that the student attend the school without attending religious instruction at the school (which arrangements shall not result in a reduction in the school day in respect of the student concerned),”

3. Legal Responsibility of the Board of Management of the school

It is the legal responsibility of the Board of Management under the Act to prepare a draft admission policy in respect of the school. The Board must consult the patron, parents of students attending the school, and the staff of the school.

The Board must then in its Admissions Policy provide details of the school’s arrangements for students attending the school and not attending religious instruction. That would occur when a parent, under the Act, requests in writing that their child not attend these classes.

It is clear from the Act that the Admission Policy must provide these details. Asking parents to attend a meeting to discuss how the request ‘may’ be accommodated is not in accordance with the Act, as it does not ‘provide details’ within the Admissions policy.

The words ‘may be accommodated by the school’ are not appropriate as the Act clearly envisages that the school ‘must‘ accommodate, and provide details of the arrangements to do so, in the Admissions policy.

Asking parents to attend a ‘meeting’ cannot fulfil the ‘detail’ of the arrangements for not attending religious instruction as that must legally be in the Admissions policy.

The Admissions Policy must also ensure that the ‘school’s arrangements’ does not result in a reduction in the school day for a student who does not attend religious instruction. This is not up for discussion at any meeting, and the details must be written down in the Admissions policy. The Act clearly states that an Admissions Policy ‘shall’ have these details.

4. Document issued to schools in the Dublin Diocese

The Dublin Diocese has sent a document to schools and suggested that Boards of Management use it a basis for discussing admission policies in relation to the 2018 Act. A parent has sent us a copy of that document. We have heard that all Dioceses have sent out that same suggested wording to schools under their patronage. You can view that Document here

The Dublin Diocese has already filled in two Sections of the legal requirements of Boards of Management. One of those Sections (S. 2) is the ethos (Characteristic Spirit) of the school and the other is the arrangements for accommodating students who do not attend religious instruction (Section 17).

Boards of Management are legally required to uphold the ethos (Characteristic Spirit) of the Patron of the school under Section 15 of the Education Act 1998. In relation to Section 2, the Document from the Diocese reminds Boards of this requirement in relation to the ethos of the school.

We can understand why the Catholic Church would want to suggest wording for Section 2 (ethos/Characteristic spirit) of the school under their patronage, but there is no reason to even suggest the wording of Section 17 (the opt-out) as that is the legal obligation of the Minister under Section 30 of the Education Act 1998.

The Diocese does not give any reason why Boards of Management of schools should disregard their legal requirement to prepare a draft Admissions Policy with ‘detailed arrangements’ for students who do not attend religious instruction and consult parents and teachers regarding those detailed arrangements.

5. What the Document from the Dublin Diocese states

“17. Arrangements regarding students not attending religious instruction

This section must be completed by schools that provide religious instruction to students.

The following are the school’s arrangements for students, where the parents or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student, who has have requested that the student attend the school without attending religious instruction in the school. These arrangements will not result in a reduction in the school day of such students:

A written request should be made to the Principal of the school. A meeting will then be arranged with the parent(s) or the student, as the case may be, to discuss how the request may be accommodated by the school.”

It is the responsibility of the Boards of Management under the Act to prepare a Draft Admission Policy, and to consult with the patron, parents and teachers regarding details of the arrangements that must be part of the published Admission policy.

6. Schools cannot make attending a meeting a condition of admission

Section 62 of the Act is clear that schools cannot make attending any meeting a condition of admission to the school. There is no purpose to the meeting other than to make it difficult for parents to access the opt-out.

62 – 7  admission policy shall—

(e) provide that the school shall not, when deciding on an application to the school, or when placing a student on a waiting list for admission to the school, consider or take into account any of the following:

(v) a requirement that a student, or his or her parents, attend an interview, open day or other meeting as a condition of admission

The Dublin Diocese is suggesting that a ‘meeting with the school’ is sufficient ‘detail’ to fulfil the requirement of the Act when those details should be published in the Admissions Policy. A requirement to attend a meeting cannot be used as a condition of Admission.

If the Principal or teacher know the details of the school’s arrangements, then that level of detail exists, so why not put it in the Admissions Policy? And why require parents to attend a meeting when the school cannot use that as a condition of admission?

7. Legal functions of the Principal

The Principal or teacher who meets with parents cannot make up the detailed arrangements for students who do not attend religious instruction as it is not their legal function to do so. That is the legal function of the Board of Management under the Act.

The function of the Principal under the Act is to:

be responsible for the day to day management of the school, including guidance and direction of the teachers and other staff of the school and the implementation of the admission policy of the school, and be accountable to the board of the school for that management,

The Principal is legally accountable to the board of the school for implementing the Admissions policy that they have prepared, the policy must give the detailed arrangements for those students that exercise their Constitutional right to not attend religious teaching.

8. What level of detail should a policy include?

The Diocesan Document does not give any suggested details of the arrangements that schools should make for students who do not attend religious instruction.

The responsibility for putting together detailed arrangements lies with the Board of Management who should consult the patron, parents and teachers.

A Board of Management can refuse to implement Catholic Church Guidelines on not attending religious teaching because they discriminate against minorities and undermine their Constitutional and human rights.

Ideally, any Admission policy would be as comprehensive as possible but at a minimum, they should include the level of detail in the following examples.

We are not endorsing the content of these examples, but we include them here because some of them are part of the Guidelines on the Inclusion of Students of Different Beliefs in Catholic Secondary Schools.

  • A student who does not attend religious instruction must stay in the classroom where religious instruction takes place.
  • A student who does not attend religious instruction will be supervised in another classroom when religious instruction takes place.
  • A student who does not attend religious instruction will be offered another subject.
  • A student who does not attend religious instruction will be supervised by another teacher.
  • A student who does not attend religious instruction will be expected to stay in the classroom and do work supplied by the teacher.
  • A student who does not attend religious instruction can do their homework or work provided by their parents.
  • A student who does not attend religious instruction must stay at the back of the class and study the religion of their family or if they have no religion, suitable material provided by the teacher.
  • The teacher will supervise the work of students who don’t attend religious instruction and deem whether that work is suitable.
  • A student will be expected to attend religious worship or ceremony and pray if they have a religion or show respect if they have no religion.

 

9. What is the point of the suggested meetings?

Why would any principal or teacher have individual meetings with various parents who have made a request that their child does not attend religious instruction? Why are schools and parents expected to take on this unnecessary burden just because the local Diocese doesn’t want the details of the opt-out to appear in the Admissions Policy?

Why would the school not just accept the parents’ decision (a Constitutional Right), and accommodate it in accordance with the Admission policy that has been prepared according to the Act? Details regarding the arrangements for not attending religious teaching should have been prepared by the Board in consultation with the patron, parents and teachers, and published in the admissions policy.

Where would the principal or teacher get the ‘detailed arrangements’ to discuss with parents at the suggested meeting? It is not the function of the principal or any teacher to put in place such a policy. Principals and teachers cannot just make up the ‘detail’ of a policy as they go along as it is not their legal function.

10. Know your rights and insist on them

We are left with a situation where the Catholic Church has given Boards of Management suggested wording for preparing Admission Policies that is contrary to the Act. The only purpose of this suggested wording is that the details of the arrangements will be kept secret from the school community, and parents will not be consulted regarding them. It will also mean that parents will not know before they enrol their child in the school those detailed arrangements.

The Catholic Church continues to do all it can to undermine the rights of parents and their children. If your school has introduced an Admissions policy in accordance with the suggested wording of the Catholic Church you can complain to the Minister for Education under Section 69 of the Act.

Don’t let the Catholic Church undermine your Constitutional right to opt out of any religious teaching in any publicly funded school. Insist on being aware of the details of the school’s arrangements for opting out before you enrol your child in the school. Atheist Ireland will continue to highlight this ongoing discrimination.

Atheist Ireland

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