Baptism barrier: Education officials warn against catchment area solution

Catholic-backed move would require new laws and boundary-dispute adjudication

Baptism barrier: the catchment-area proposal is one of several solutions Minister for Education Richard Bruton has put forward. Photograph: iStock/Getty

Baptism barrier: the catchment-area proposal is one of several solutions Minister for Education Richard Bruton has put forward. Photograph: iStock/Getty

 

A proposal to tackle the “Baptism barrier” that Catholic Church bodies favour would be complex and could take years to implement, Department of Education officials have warned.

A catchment-area approach, which would prohibit religious schools from giving preference to children of their own faith who live outside their local area ahead of other children, has drawn support from Catholic bodies, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party.

But at a forum at Croke Park on Monday organised by Minister for Education Richard Bruton, officials pointed out that such a move would require the creation of catchment areas that have no statutory basis.

New legislation would also have to reflect the differences between different denominations and religions, and structures would need to be established for the adjudication of boundary disputes.

The catchment-area proposal is one of several options Mr Bruton has put forward to limit or remove the Baptism barrier from access to education.

Oversubscribed publicly funded schools can currently prioritise children of their own religion ahead of other children who live closer to the school. This has become highly contentious, given that more than 90 per cent of primary schools remain under the patronage of the Catholic Church or other religious organisations.

The other options Mr Bruton has proposed involve a “nearest school” rule, a quota-based system, and an outright ban on using religion as a factor in admissions. He told the forum that there were no easy solutions, with difficulties involving constitutional law, administration of the schools system, and protection of minority religious groups. But he said doing nothing was not an option. Mr Bruton said that although only 4 per cent of primary schools were nonreligious, 10 per cent of the population is not religious.

Officials at the forum noted that a nearest-school rule was less complex than a catchment-area plan. This would allow religious schools to give preference to a religious child only where it is the child’s nearest school of that particular religion.

This would likely require legislative change for the calculation of where the nearest school is: would a route start at the front door of a pupil’s home and follow only public roads, for example, or would it allow for short cuts through parks?

Several sources present at the forum’s private round-table discussions of possible solutions, which involved schools, patron bodies and education partners, reported little sign of consensus, with many schools and religious organisations preferring the status quo.

A Private Members’ Bill is due to return before the Oireachtas in a month or so, and Mr Bruton has signalled that he will recommend a way forward to the Government.