The head of the organisation representing religious-run secondary schools has described as "very worrying and unwelcome" a decision by the Department of Education to require state-run multi-denominational schools to provide alternative subject choices to students who don't wish to study religion. 

Addressing the annual conference of the Joint Managerial Body in Galway today Fr Paul O'Connell said that while the instruction did not apply to the religious-run schools which he represents, it would have a knock-on effect. 

Fr O'Connell said that the instruction would cause religious-run schools difficulty in managing "in a sensitive and appropriate manner" the situation of individual students who wished to opt out, while not overburdening school resources. 

The Department of Education recently instructed all Education and Training Board (ETB) and Community schools to provide an alternative subject choice to religion for all students who wished it from September. 

Schools have complained that they do not have the resources to comply with the measure

The Teachers' Union of Ireland, which represents the majority of teachers in the state-run sector, has said its members will not co-operate with the instruction.

The new rules do not apply to religious-run schools. 

The normal practice in many of these schools is to require the student to remain in the classroom during the religion class. 

Some stipulate that the student must not be allowed to wear headphones. 

Speaking at the conference in Galway Fr O'Connell complained about a lack of consultation by the Department on the issue. 

He also said the direction issued by the Department had mistakenly equated religious education with religious instruction.

He said the instruction contradicted the Department's own guidelines which stated that students should be exposed to a broad range of religious traditions and to the non religious interpretation of life. 

Fr O'Connell criticised what he called "the negative tone" of the circular that had been issued to schools and its failure to state positively the opportunity offered by Religious Education. 

He said he welcomed ongoing discussions between the ETB and Community school sectors and the Department on the issue and looked forward to "a more nuanced approach".

On Department of Education plans to remove the so-called 'baptism barrier', which gives Catholic children precedence over others in admission to most schools here, Fr O'Connell said the Department was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

He said school principals were concerned that proposed new admission procedures would add to an already unsustainable workload.

On funding for schools Fr O'Connell said schools were at crisis point and he called for equal funding for the religious run and state school sectors. 

He said 30% of funding for schools in the so-called 'voluntary' or religious run sector was now being provided by voluntary contributions and fundraising.