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Opting Out of Religious Education

| The Views of Young People from Minority Belief Backgrounds


 Welcome to the website of the Opting Out of Religious Education: The Views of Young People from Minority Belief Backgrounds. The project investigated the effectiveness of the opt-out clause as a mechanism to protect freedom of religion in schools.

The research was funded through the AHRC and ESRC collaborative Religion and Society Research Programme. The project began in October 2009 and was completed in September 2010.

The results of the research were published in a report launched by the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission at a dissemination seminar attended by policy-makers, practitioners and academics in September 2010. The report contains legal and educational recommendations to international human rights bodies and educational authorities and has been widely distributed to these bodies.

View the report.

Project background

International human rights law permits the teaching of doctrinal (i.e. confessional) religious instruction in schools and holds that opt-out clauses are a sufficient means to protect and respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion of those who do not wish to participate in it.  While conscience clauses in domestic law may predate this standard, current domestic law and policy is informed and legitimatised by this international human rights norm.

This research explored the issues surrounding the workings of the opt-out clause in schools.  Its core aim was to examine the opt-out clause through the perspective of young people (13 -18 years) of minority belief and assesses its suitability as a mechanism to protect religious liberty in a diverse society.  Additional interviews were held with parents and minority belief community leaders.   

Project objectives

To gather information regarding how far young people from minority belief backgrounds believe the opt-out respects and protects their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

To identify to what extent these young people believe that the process of opting out is a negative or positive experience which may impact on their sense of belonging to their school and religious community

To gather the views of parents and communities regarding the extent to which opt-out clauses protect religious identity and freedom in schools.

To  evaluate the adequacy of the current status of opt-outs and religious liberty in schools in order to identify key policy drivers which should inform international human rights standards and domestic policy in the area.

To draw up evidence-based recommendations for policy and educational practice.  

Key findings

Young people and parents from minority belief backgrounds are not necessarily aware of opt-out rights in relation to religious education and, in particular, to other religious occasions in school.

The existence of the right to opt outdid not necessarily lead students to feel that their religion or beliefs were acknowledged and respected in the school. The lack of attention given to their beliefs in the RE curriculum caused them to feel that these beliefs were not valued or respected by the school, nor indeed more widely by the education system.

The lack of accessible and transparent policies and procedures dealing with opt-outs as well as the lack of consultation relating to alternative arrangements for opted-out students led to a sense amongst many minority belief students that their beliefs were not of interest or concern to their school. In order for pupils to feel respected and protected in their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, young people expected schools to move beyond merely offering a poorly executed opt-out clause.

Pupils' experiences of opt-out provision varied widely between schools and within schools, depending on the teacher's approach and attitude.  Pupils' satisfaction with opt-out provision was based on their age, self-esteem and confidence in their own beliefs as well as the presence of other pupils opting out of religious education in the class or school.

Most parents who were faced with an opt-out decision spoke of the fear that their child would 'stand out' and feel excluded with some suggesting that the right to opt-out was not so much a protection mechanism for minority belief individuals but an 'exclusion clause' and that it was damaging to a child's self esteem if her or his beliefs were not recognised within the school and the curriculum.

Advisory Group

The Advisory Group met several times during the course of the project. The group consisted of the following members:
Mr. Alf Armstrong (North East Education and Library Board)
Mr. Iain Deboys (Humani)
Mr. Edwin Graham (Inter-Faith Forum)
Mr. David Oldfield (former president, Association of Teachers and Lecturers)
Dr. Jackie Reilly (University of Ulster)
Dr. David Russell (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission)
Mr. Patrick Yu (Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities)                       

Further information

If you would like further information about the research, please contact any member of the project team

Dr Yuko Chiba (School of Law)
 (School of Law)
Dr Ulrike Niens (School of Education)
Mr Norman Richardson (Stranmillis University College)