Minister for Education Richard Bruton today (Monday) announced his intention to reform the school admissions system in relation to the role that religion can play in that process.
In a speech this morning at a seminar organised by Equate, a campaign group in this area, Minister Bruton stated that he believes that 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 the local school.
The Minister set out four possible approaches for dealing with the issue, in primary schools in the first instance, including:
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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 is capacity to allow religious schools to require parents or students to indicate some support or respect for the ethos of the school.
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 4000 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.
Minister Bruton also announced that he will be commencing a short, 10-12-week process of consultation, and will be interested in hearing the views of the groups who stand to be impacted by changes as well as any members of the public with views on the issue.
The Minister also reiterated his position that these issues should be dealt with on a separate track to the Admissions Bill, shortly to progress to Committee Stage. This view was passed by a large majority of the Dáil in a motion last June. The Admissions Bill includes a series of practical common-sense reforms to the process of admissions to schools, commands broad support across the Dáil, and is on target to be enacted ahead in the coming months. The issues involved here are complex and potentially controversial, and by linking them in with the Admissions Bill the danger is that that Bill gets substantially delayed as these issues are worked out.
The Minister said:
“My basic aim as education Minister is to achieve in Ireland the best education service in Europe within the next decade. There are many aspects to this – the best at supporting children with special needs or disadvantages, the best at educating the skilled workers needed to support a growing economy, but also the best at dealing with the complex issues around ethics, religion and integration of minorities that our rapidly-changing world is throwing up.
“The patronage and ethos of our schools is not something which this generation of politicians, public servants, school managers or teachers have created. It is something we have inherited, and reflects a very different era in Ireland, and change is needed to meet the needs of today’s families. 96% of our primary schools are under the patronage of Christian religious organisations. In particular, 90% are of Roman Catholic ethos. However, over a third of couples who are getting married are choosing to do so in a non-religious ceremony, and all the evidence points to a population in which very significantly fewer than 90% of young families are religious.
“Parents are recognised by our Constitution as the primary educators of their children. I believe that a desire on behalf of religious parents to educate their children in their faith is welcome and should be respected. This principle is reflected in the Programme for Government. Equally, however, I believe that non-religious parents or parents of minority religions should not be unfairly disadvantaged in seeking to admit their children to their local publicly-funded school.
“I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, a non-religious child can be refused entry to the local school, because preference is given to a religious child living some distance away. I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, some parents who might not otherwise do so feel pressure to baptise their children because they feel it gives them more chance of getting into their local school.
“I believe we must address these unfairnesses. However, no one should pretend that these issues are simple, or that there is an easy fix which solves everything and leaves no possible unintended consequences. In particular, as we develop reforms we must strive to avoid impacts on the rights of minority religions. We should live and let live, and aim for the greatest good for the greatest number.
“I urge all people and groups who have views on these issues and who have concerns about possible impacts to make their views known so that we can take them into account as we develop proposals in this highly complex and contested area”.