‘Baptism barrier’ to Catholic schools to go next year

School Admissions Bill will remove religion as entry criterion for 90% of primary schools

The vast majority of primary schools – just over 90 per cent – are of a Catholic ethos. Photograph: The Irish Times

The vast majority of primary schools – just over 90 per cent – are of a Catholic ethos. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The Government is planning to remove the “Baptism barrier” for entry to Catholic primary schools from September of next year.

Under changes to be announced on Wednesday, all Catholic primary schools will be prohibited from giving enrolment priority to baptised children in cases where they are over-subscribed.

The vast majority of primary schools – just over 90 per cent – are of a Catholic ethos.

However, minority faiths, such as the Church of Ireland, will be allowed to prioritise members of their religion in order to protect their ethos in cases where they are over-subscribed.

This exclusion has been introduced to help ensure children of minority faiths can still access a school of their own religion.

The new rules will apply to over-subscribed schools (about 20 per cent) only. Schools that are not oversubscribed will be obliged to accept all applicants, regardless of religion.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the “historic” move aimed to balance the rights of non-denominational, Catholic and minority faith families.

“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,” Mr Bruton said. “Parents should not feel pressured to baptise their child to get access to their local school.”

2019/2020

Mr Bruton said he planned to enacted the School Admissions Bill as quickly as possible, so it would apply to children entering school in the 2019/2020 school year.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton: “historic” move aims to balance the rights of non-denominational, Catholic and minority faith families. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Minister for Education Richard Bruton: “historic” move aims to balance the rights of non-denominational, Catholic and minority faith families. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

While Mr Bruton announced the plans last year, the planned amendment has been subject to extensive legal advice from the Attorney General’s office.

The Irish Times reported earlier this year that Catholic bishops and trustee bodies for thousands of Catholic schools, along with management bodies and missionary groups, were preparing to fight the changes through legal challenges. They have argued that the planned changes are unfair and mean that some Catholic children may now be denied places in their local Catholic school.

Government sources, however, say they are satisfied the planned changes are “legally robust”.

Mr Bruton has argued that Catholic children will still be able to access Catholic primary schools given that the majority – 90 per cent – provide for religious instruction or education through the faith.

Admissions policy

Other significant changes to the legislation, which seeks to provide a fairer admissions policy, include:

* A provision to allow all-Irish primary and secondary schools to give enrolment priority to Irish-speaking children. Under this approach, parents will be required to provide evidence that their child has an “age appropriate” level of fluency. Parents will have a choice to demonstrate this through an interview at the school or via a video.

* New powers for the Minister for Education to require schools to open special classes for children with special needs where it is deemed necessary. At present, there are no powers to compel schools to establish special classes. However, research suggests some schools erect “soft barriers” to discourage children with additional needs from applying.

Previously flagged changes to the School Admission Bill include:

  • A ban on waiting lists, aimed at ensuring children who move to a new area or who rent are not disadvantaged; instead, there will be a three-week enrolment window in the year prior to admission. There is due to be a five-year phasing-in period for this provision once the legislation is enacted.
  • A 25 per cent limit on the number of school places that can be set aside for children of past-pupils. At present there is no such restriction.
  • A ban on fees relating to admissions in non-fee paying schools.
  • An obligation on all schools which are not over-subscribed (about 80 per cent of schools) to admit all students who apply.

Mr Bruton said the changes were aimed at introducing a more “parent-friendly, equitable and consistent” approach to how school admissions policies operate for the 4,000 State-recognised schools across the country.