Bruton set to pledge end of ‘baptism barrier’ in schools

Minister to set out four options to ensure children have access to local schools

Minister for Education Richard Bruton maintains the Dáil “has an appetite” to deal with the ‘baptism barrier’ issue and that there is a clear timetable for legislation.

 

Minister for Education Richard Bruton will today announce plans to remove the baptism barrier from schools to ensure children from non-religious backgrounds are not discriminated against in school admission policies.

He will say he believes it is unfair that publicly funded religious schools are able to give preference to children of their own religion ahead of those of no religion who may live closer to the school.

Under current laws, schools may discriminate on the basis of religion in their admissions in cases where they are oversubscribed. However, this has become a highly contentious issue given that 96 per cent of primary schools remain under the patronage of religious bodies.

Mr Bruton will set out four possible approaches for dealing with the issue at primary level, in the first instance. They include: 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 close by.

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 religion.

A quota system, which would allow a religious school set aside a certain number of places for children of its own religion.

And a ban on religious schools using religion as a factor in admissions.

None of these measures is likely to be contained in schools admissions legislation currently being debated in the Dáil, according to sources.

Public consultation

The length of the consultation process is unclear. This raises questions about whether any legislative change will take place within the lifetime of the Government.

Nevertheless, it is a significant move given that Fine Gael has now joined all the major parties in supporting plans to tackle the baptism barrier.

At an event to debate the barrier organised by the campaign group Equate today, Mr Bruton will say the current system is “unfair” and parents should not feel pressured into baptising their children to secure school places.

“I believe we must address these unfairnesses. However, no one should pretend that these issues are simple, or that there is an easy fix.” The possible pitfalls include any impact on the ability of minority religions – such as Protestant, Jewish or Islamic groups – to run their own schools in accordance with their ethos.

“We should live and let live, and aim for the greatest good for the greatest number,” Mr Bruton will say.