Analysis: Demand for school equality is growing
The campaign to ensure unbaptised children’s access to schools is on the up
Jan O’Sullivan, Minister for Education: she believes the solution may lie in the amending of Section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act which allows schools to discriminate on the basis of religion in admission. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Is it possible to guarantee unbaptised children access to their local religious-run school without undermining the entire system of denominational education?
That’s the dilemma facing the next government. The campaign for equal access to school will gather pace next year with the establishment of a number of formal lobby groups ahead of the general election campaign.
Almost everyone – including the churches – agrees that controlling 96 per cent of primary schools is not in anyone’s interest in an increasingly pluralist society.
But ensuring unbaptised children have access to their local school will mean navigating a complex array of legal landmines.
Competing articles of the Constitution protect both the right to religious education and protection against religious discrimination.
Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan believes the solution may lie in the amending of Section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act. This section of the law allows schools to discriminate on the basis of religion when it comes to admission policies.
An amendment could work in a similar way to the recently amended Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which extends labour protections to gay or lesbian teachers in denominational schools.
Under the old legislation, the ethos of religious institutions was prioritised over workplace protections for employees.
A new and amended section signed into law recently has shifted the emphasis on protection to the employee rather than the institution.
Proximity to school
This could allow a significant minority of places – anything up to 49 per cent – to be set aside for children on the basis of their proximity to school rather than their religion.
“I recognise the right of denominational schools to protect their ethos,” she said, in an interview with The Irish Times.
“But we need to look at the Equal Status Act to ensure that parents feel they don’t have to baptise their children into a religion they don’t believe in just to get a place in their local school.”
Clearly, it is too late to effect these kinds of changes prior to a general election.
But the fact that the sitting Minister for Education has pointed to a potential solution to the admissions crisis is significant in setting the agenda for change.
This, of course, is only part of the answer to creating a more pluralist education system.
Despite the report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, only a handful of schools have been transferred to non-religious patrons out of 3,200 primary schools nationwide.
On patronage, Ms O’Sullivan says the divestment program needs to be reviewed and speeded up, with more areas identified where local communities want different patronage options.
She has also indicated that new forms of patronage, including new rules for school amalgamations, need to be explored and developed that best serve and reflect the communities the schools are in.
It is Labour policy that the number of multi-denominational schools will double over the coming years.
Achieving anything near that number will most likely require new models of school patronage at primary level.
The church is standing behind “parental choice” to justify its stance, while local communities are reluctant to abandon the old school crest.
The clamour for change is growing nationally – and internationally too, with successive UN human rights committees voicing their concern about the lack of non-denominational schools in Ireland.
The next Government will almost certainly have to return to the drawing board as the current policy is not working.