The Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton TD, today (Monday) announced that he will hold a Forum on the role of Religion in Primary School Admissions on Monday 29th May, as part of a broader consultation process on the subject currently being carried out.
Minister Bruton stated earlier this year that he believes it is unfair that preference is given by publicly-funded religious schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who live close to the school. The Minister also stated his belief that it is unfair that parents, who might otherwise not do so, feel pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to their local school.
As part of the consultation, a call for written submissions which closed recently attracted almost 1000 responses from a combination of individuals, schools and stakeholder organisations.
In announcing the public consultation, Minister Bruton said that following the receipt and analysis of written submissions, consideration would be given as to whether any additional steps are needed as part of the consultation process. Today’s announcement of the half-day Forum follows up on that announcement.
Minister Bruton has stated that this initiative will focus on the primary school system as that is where the problem is most acutely felt.
Invitations to the National Forum are being sent today to all major education stakeholder organisations as well as to every organisation or individual who made a written submission as part of the public consultation. However, in an effort to ensure that the conversation at the Forum is productive, spaces will have to be limited, and so anyone with an interest in attending is urged to respond early to the invitation.
Minister Bruton said:
“This is a highly complex and difficult issue, with strong feelings genuinely held on all sides of the argument. There are no easy solutions to this problem, with difficulties in areas including constitutional law, administration of the schools system and protection of minority religious groups.
“However doing nothing is not an option in my view. While only 4% of our primary schools are under non-religious patronage, 10% of the population in the recent census stated that they are non-religious, with this figure even higher for those among usual parenting ages. One third of all marriages now take place outside of any religion.
“My aim is to find a solution which addresses this problem, while respecting the very strongly-held and legitimate desire of minority religious groups to run schools which are genuinely of their own ethos.
“I hope that people will respond positively and constructively to my invitation to this Forum, and participate in the event in a spirit aimed at finding viable solutions to this complex and difficult issue”.
Notes To Editors
Minister Bruton has set out four possible approaches for dealing with the issue, in primary schools in the first instance, including:
1. A catchment area approach, prohibiting religious schools from giving preference to children of their own religion who live outside the catchment area ahead of non-religious children who live inside the catchment
2. A ‘nearest school rule’, allowing religious schools to give preference to a religious child only where it is that child’s nearest school of that particular religion
3. A quota system, which would allow a religious school give preference to children of its own religion in respect of only a certain proportion of places, meaning that the remaining places would be allocated based on other admissions criteria – proximity to the school, lottery etc
4. An outright prohibition on religious schools using religion as a factor in admissions, meaning that all places would be allocated based on other factors. Within this approach, there are three sub-options:
a. Outright repeal of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act in respect of publicly-funded primary schools
b. Repeal of the first part of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act in respect of publicly-funded primary schools, but make provision to allow denominational schools to require parents or students to sign a declaration stating that they support, respect, will cooperate with or won’t disrupt the ethos of the school.
c. Repeal of the first part of section 7(3) (c) of the Equal Status Act in respect of publicly-funded primary schools, but make provision to allow minority schools to reserve a certain percentage of places for children of their religion
The Minister also set out the need to avoid possible pitfalls and unintended consequences with each of these approaches, including most importantly possible impacts on minority religions and on the wishes of Protestant, Jewish, Islamic and other communities to be able to run schools in accordance with their ethos and admit children from their communities to attend those schools.
Other possible consequences to be avoided include possible breaches of the constitution, technical and administrative difficulties impacting on the capacity to effectively run the system of over 3000 primary schools and the possibility of creating ‘postcode lotteries’, such as other countries have experienced, resulting in pronounced divergence in quality of schools in more advantaged compared to less advantaged areas.