Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is pushing to enable children to opt out of religious classes.
He has told teachers’ annual conferences this week that religion classes could be at the end or beginning of the school day so children who are not involved don’t feel excluded.
Quinn said he believed schools could have more flexible timetabling for religious education, to enable children to opt out of the subject more easily.
Quinn, who has strong personal views on the place of religion in schools, was giving a taste of his thinking on ways to ensure that schools are inclusive of children of all faiths, and no faith.
It is believed his thoughts are based on the explosion of non-Catholic immigration families, and non-believing Irish families, who have to send children to Catholic schools in areas where there is no alternative patronage.
Some 1,700 of the state’s 3,200 primary schools are in areas where there is no alternative school – and thus local children are typically obliged to accept Catholic patronage.
Quinn insisted in his address to the Irish National Teachers’ Organization (I.N.T.O.) that he had no wish to engage in cultural wars or to create division in Irish society.
He had no desire to see an end to denominational education in Ireland but, he added, the education system had to be continually reformed so that it reflected and supported all the people.
He said the Catholic Church had yet to furnish examples of genuinely inclusive Catholic primary schools, two years after being asked by the government to do so.
Quinn said Ireland was party to a wide-range of international conventions requiring it to respect the rights of children and parents in relation to education and freedom of religion.
Quinn’s intervention came just days after Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin called for an acceleration of reforms to achieve a “plurality of patronage” in Irish education.
In an interview with The Irish Times, the archbishop said he believed “a more robust collaboration” between the church and the Department of the Education “would make these things move a little quickly.”
Quinn, in response, said, “I look forward to working with Archbishop Martin and others to develop that robust collaboration.”