Members of one of the country’s teaching unions are set to ignore a recent “ham-fisted” Department of Education demand to provide alternative arrangements for students who opt out of religious instruction.

Delegates at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) annual congress yesterday backed an emergency motion on the issue, which has seen the union at loggerheads with the Department over consultation and funding.

The TUI say the circular, issued to Education and Training Boards (ETBs) and community post-primary schools in February, was unexpected.

The circular instructed that these schools must, from September, timetable other subjects for students who opt out of religious instruction, rather than have them sit through it at the back of the class.

However, the TUI has argued that the requirement to provide alternative tuition has been made unilaterally, without discussion with teachers, and that the department has not made any extra funding or resources available to meet the demand.

The three-day TUI conference came to its conclusion in Wexford yesterday, where delegates unanimously backed a motion calling on members not to comply with the circular until the union is satisfied that sufficient resources have been put in place.

Joe Brennan of the Kerry branch of the TUI said it was not an issue about the role of religion in schools, but one about resources.

“What do we do with these kids?” he asked.

We all know how hard it is to get staff, we all know how hard it is to get allocations, to get hours. Nobody has time for extra work, everybody is working flat out.

The rejection of the circular had been predicted on Wednesday by TUI president Joanne Irwin, who told Education Minister Richard Bruton that the union’s members were “taken aback” by the circular.

“We have no intention of infringing on the constitutional rights of students and their parents, and will not do so, but to ask us to draw water with a colander from a dry well is to ask for the miraculous,” said Ms Irwin.

The rejection of the circular was welcomed by TUI general secretary John MacGabhann.

“This was just so ham-fisted that it was extraordinary. It would be unfair to say it was typical of the department — it’s not. This is extraordinarily ham-fisted for the department on an issue that is extraordinarily sensitive,” he said.

Mr MacGabhann said there is a suspicion that the circular was an opportunistic attempt by the Department to shift the burden for providing environments free of religious instruction onto the ETB sector to avoid a row with denominational schools.

He was also critical of the “ambiguity” of the wording of the circular, and said it has led to confusion as to whether it applies to religious education as well as instruction.

While religious education is an academic subject, instruction plays a part in particular faith formation.

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