Amendment to Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 on the role of religion in school admissions approved by government
Oversubscribed primary schools will not be allowed discriminate on the basis of religion, minority religions protected
The Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton T.D. has today (Wednesday, 9th of May 2018) published three Report Stage amendments to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 which will have a historic impact on how children access their local primary school.
Today’s announcement fulfils a key action in the Minister’s Action Plan for Education, which aims to make Ireland’s education and training service the best in Europe by 2026.
The amendments, which were approved by government yesterday (Tuesday), will make important changes in three key areas by:
a) Removing the role of religion in school admissions for virtually all primary schools
b) Providing for Irish medium schools to give priority to Irish speaking children
c) Providing for the Minister to require a school to open a special class for children with special educational needs, where the National Council of Special Education deems it necessary.
The role of religion in admission to primary schools
This amendment seeks to meet the needs of all parents in a fair and balanced way.
Announcing the change, the Minister said, “It is unfair that a local child of no religion is passed over in favour of a child of religion, living some distance away for access to their local school. Parents should not feel pressured to baptise their child to get access to their local school.
“While 90% of our primary schools are of a Catholic ethos, recent figures show that over 20% (and growing) of our parent-age population is non-religious. In addition, recent marriage statistics for 2017 show that only approximately 51% of marriages occurred in a Catholic ceremony”
The amendment being published by the Minister today will remove religion as a criterion which can be used in school admissions in over 95% of our primary schools. Under the proposed new law, there will be a protection to ensure that a child of minority faith, can still access a school of their faith.
This change balances the rights of three different groups: minority religion families, catholic families, and non-denominational families.
- Minority religion families, because of their small size within the overall population, could find it extremely difficult to access schools of their own religious ethos. As a result of these changes, children of minority religions will be able access such schools.This exception, for minority faith children, is because only 1 out of every 20 of our primary schools are of minority ethos and the need to ensure that children of minority faith can access an education through their ethos, if that is their choice.
- Catholic families will continue to be able to get their children into Catholic schools; and Catholic schools will be able to protect their ethos, as 18 out of every 20 of our schools are of a Catholic ethos and therefore, local catholic children will always have access to a Catholic ethos education, if that is their choice.
- Non-denominational Children will now find that for well over 95% of schools (all schools except minority ethos schools which may give priority admission to children of their own or similar religious ethos), they will be treated the same as all other families in admissions
These changes will only impact oversubscribed primary schools (approx. 20%), which are predominantly located in large urban areas.
Schools that are not oversubscribed must continue to accept all applicants, regardless of religion.
Providing for Irish medium schools to give priority to Irish speaking children
This amendment to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 will allow Irish medium schools (where it is their policy to do so) to give priority in admission to students who have a reasonable age appropriate level of oral fluency in the Irish language, where such fluency would be at risk of regressing if the student were not admitted to an Irish medium school.
Under the amendment such schools will be required to take into account whether a child has a special educational need in the context of determining what a reasonable age appropriate level of Irish for that child would be.
The amendment provides that the applicant (parent) must provide evidence to the school to show that the child has a reasonable age appropriate level of oral fluency. The parent has a choice as to the evidence he or she wishes to provide. They can for example, if they wish, provide a video recording to demonstrate the child’s fluency. Some parents may prefer to attend the school for interview and that will be permitted.
Providing for the Minister to require a school to open a special class for children with special educational needs
This amendment will give the Minister the power to compel a school to open a special class or classes where the National Council for Special Education has identified a need for such provision within an area. This will complement the provisions already included in the Bill which will provide for a situation where a child with special educational needs cannot find a school place, and allow the National Council for Special Education to designate a school place for the child
The Minister said that “This government is committed to ensuring every child with special educational needs has the opportunity to fulfil their full potential. In 2018, almost €1.8 billion is being invested in Special Education, nearly one fifth of the overall Education budget, and up 43% since 2011.”
The Minister also announced that he would, once the Bill is enacted, quickly commence the provisions published today in relation to the role of religion in school admissions and a power to open a special class so that they would apply to children entering school in the 2019/2020 school year. The provision in relation to the Irish language will enter into operation once the Bill is fully commenced.
Notes for Editors:
The Minister published the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 on 6th July 2016. The Bill aims to introduce a more parent-friendly, equitable and consistent approach to how school admissions policy operates for the almost 4,000 recognised primary and post-primary schools in the country and to ensure a fair and balanced school admission process for all pupils. The main provisions of the Bill include measures to:
- Ensure that where a school is not oversubscribed (approximately 80% of schools) it must admit all students applying;
- Ban waiting lists, thus ensuring parents who move to a new area, or parents who rent, are not disadvantaged;
- Ban fees relating to admissions in non-fee charging schools;
- Require all schools to publish their admissions policies, which will include details of their arrangements for pupils who decline to participate in religious instruction;
- Require all schools to consult with and inform parents where changes are being made to their admissions policies;
- Provide for a situation where a child (with special needs or otherwise) cannot find a school place, and allow the National Council for Special Education or Tusla (Child and Family Agency) to designate a school place for the child.
- An oversubscribed school, for the first time, will not be permitted to allocate more than 25% of their places to the children of past pupils (currently there is no such restriction in place so in theory a school could allocate all of their places to the children of past pupils)
The Bill passed Committee Stage on 28th June 2017 and will now shortly proceed to Report Stage.
Report Stage amendments in relation to the following three matters have been approved by Government –
a) The role of religion in admission to primary schools
b) Providing for Irish medium schools to give priority to Irish speaking children
c) Providing for the Minister to require a school to open a special class for children with special educational needs
(a) The role of religion in admission to primary schools
The proposed amendments will involve amending Section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000.
Under the approved amendments, a recognised primary school will be in contravention of the Equal Status Act of 2000, if it has as part of its admission policy a criterion that gives a preference to applicants of a particular religion or denomination.
The amendments will however allow a student from a minority religion to seek admission to a recognised primary school that runs a religious instruction or religious education programme that is the same or similar to the religious ethos of the student concerned. In that regard, the amendments will provide that –
- The applicant must provide a statement to the school confirming that the student is a member of a minority religion and provide evidence to this effect.
- A recognised primary school can decide to admit the student in respect of whom the application is made if it is satisfied that the student is a member of a minority religion and that the school provides a programme of religious instruction or religious education that is the same or similar to the religious ethos of the student.
- Schools that admit students of a minority religion in accordance with the amendment, will not be permitted to rank those students according to the particular denomination or religion of the child concerned. Applicants will either satisfy the requirements or will not; schools will not be permitted to rank certain minority religions over others but will be enabled to admit on an equal basis students of the same minority religion and students of a minority religion that is similar to that of the school.
- Such schools will be required to set out clearly in their admissions policy that they admit students of a minority religion in accordance with the amendment.
- A minority religion will be defined as a religion whose membership is not in excess of 10% of the population, established by the Census and published by the Central Statistics Office.
The aim of the amendments is to ensure that an individual of a minority religion can find a place in a school that is aligned with their religious beliefs. A school will be permitted to admit a student on that basis but will not be compelled to do so. It will be a matter for the school to admit a student in accordance with their admissions policy and the Act.
This approach which aims to help ensure that students from minority religions can gain access to schools that provide for the religious instruction or education of the student is consistent with the legal advices provided by the Office of the Attorney General. The legal advices take into account constitutional issues that arise in providing specific protections for children of minority religions.
A member of a religious denomination that is not a minority religion will not be able to seek a priority admission to a school on religious grounds. According to the most recent census data, 78% of the population is Catholic. As Catholic primary schools make up 2,802 of the total of 3,123 primary schools (90%), Catholic children will continue to be able to access primary schools under Catholic patronage on the basis that the majority of primary schools in the state currently provide for the religious instruction and/or the religious education programme of the Catholic faith.
(b) Providing for Irish medium schools to give priority to Irish speaking children
The proposed amendments will ensure that schools that provide an education through the medium of Irish can, if they wish to do so, include in their admission policy a selection criterion that gives priority to the admission of a student who has, taking into account any special educational needs of the student, attained a reasonable age appropriate level of oral fluency in the Irish language and where that student’s fluency would be at risk of regressing if the student was not admitted to an Irish medium school.
This approach recognises the difficulties that applicants may experience in accessing the small number of schools that provide an education though the medium of Irish particularly at second level. It is not desirable in public policy terms to unintendedly limit the opportunities of students who have attained a level of proficiency in the Irish language from continuing their education through the medium of Irish. The amendment seeks to ensure that such students can be given a priority access to such schools and prevent any risk of regression in their capacity to speak the Irish language.
Under the proposed amendment, a decision by the school to admit a student on this basis will be confined solely to the evidence that the applicant elects to submit as part of his or her application. A school cannot insist on an interview or an assessment as part of this process. This approach is consistent with the general public policy aims of the Bill to prohibit the use of interviews or assessment of academic ability or aptitude in school admissions. However an applicant can elect to demonstrate the level of reasonable age appropriate level of oral fluency of the student if he or she so wishes by confirming that the student is available to attend for an interview or meeting with the school for this purpose.
(c) Providing for the Minister to require a school to open a special class for children with special educational needs.
The proposed amendments will provide the Minister with a power to require a school to make additional provision of education for children with special educational needs. This would involve the opening of a special class or increasing the number of special classes in a school based on a recommendation from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE). Under the amendment, exercise of this power will be preceded by a number of steps to allow for engagement between the Minister, the NCSE, the board of management and Patron of a school.
This provision is required to ensure that where there is a gap in provision for the education of children with special needs, as identified by the NCSE, and no school is willing to make such provision available, the gap can be addressed effectively by the issuing of a direction by the Minister to the school. The direction will require the school to make additional provision for the education of children with special educational needs. This process once initiated involves a number of stages to allow for appropriate consultation with the schools in question and for opportunities for written representations to be made to the Minister within defined timeframes.
This power also provides that where agreement is not reached with the Minister on the property arrangements required to give effect to the Ministerial notice to a school to provide for additional provision for the education of children with special educational needs, the Minister may refer the matter of the property arrangements to arbitration in accordance with the Arbitration Act, 2010. Arbitration between the Minister and the property owner allows for an independent and effective resolution of any disagreement around the property arrangements required to give effect to the notice. The property arrangements required for this purpose may not in all cases involve a new build. These arrangements will differ from school to school depending on local circumstances and having regard to the usual considerations of capacity, space restrictions, and other local factors. The outcome of arbitration on the property matters will be binding on the parties in the event that the Minister issues a direction to the school. The amendment provides for the Minister to make that decision, following the conclusion of his further consideration and statutory engagement with the board of management and Patron on the other matters (i.e matters not related to the property arrangements) relevant to whether the school should or should not make such provision.
The provision will apply to all schools recognised under the 1998 Education Act, including fee charging schools.