Census figures raise concerns of ethnic segregation in schools

Some 23 per cent of schools cater for four out of five immigrant children

The high concentration of immigrant children in a comparatively small number of primary schools has led to warnings about segregation developing in the education system.

Four out of five children from immigrant backgrounds were concentrated in 23 per cent of the State’s primary schools, the annual school census for 2013-14 shows.

In 20 schools, more than two-thirds of pupils were recorded as being of a non-Irish background.

Colette Kavanagh, principal of Esker Education Together in Lucan, Co Dublin, said admission procedures, including waiting lists and policies which favoured pupils of a particular religious ethos, had led to a situation where children of migrant families were “disproportionately at the bottom of the queue for access to schools”.


She said Ireland needed to introduce a State-run national school system which guaranteed equality of access to all children if it was to avoid “ghettoisation”.

“Unless urgent measures are taken to prevent this happening, Irish schools will continue to sleepwalk into segregation, an eventuality that may be impossible to reverse,” she said.

Admissions policies

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan is to publish shortly the Education (Admission to School) Bill, which seeks to ensure all schools have “inclusive” admissions policies.

The legislation targets what the department calls “soft barriers” to admission by forcing schools to publish entrance policies, and make it illegal to turn down a student on grounds of race, religion or disability.

Many believe more targeted measures are needed to integrate the immigrant community and other minorities in education. There is also concern that plans to create a system of multiple patrons at primary level is undermining the goal of inclusion.

‘Divesting’ policy

Members of the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection have warned the policy of "divesting" school patronage is creating forms of segregation that would not have existed in the past.

A 2009 OECD report indicated segregation at primary level in Ireland was not as pronounced as in other countries.

The figures for 2013-14 show that of the State’s 3,286 primary schools, 745 had a higher-than-average share of pupils from immigrant backgrounds.

These schools catered for 46,758 of the 59,269 children (79 per cent) who were recorded as being of a nationality other than Irish.

The majority of these schools were based in west and north Dublin and commuter belt counties Kildare and Meath. A handful were in Cork, the midlands and Mayo. In two schools, nine in 10 students came from immigrant backgrounds.

Dr Karl Kitching, a lecturer in the school of education in UCC and a former primary school teacher, said the statistics must be viewed in the context of migrant and minority ethnic students being more likely to be located in urban areas and larger schools.

Intercultural relationships

While public schools deserved a huge credit for the work they are doing in supporting intercultural relationships in their localities, he said, “this does not mean the institutional racism and bias does not exist in the wider education system”.

As regards school admissions, he said current policies could discriminate against children whose parents had not been resident in the area for some time. This, he said, was particularly evident in the roughly 20 per cent of areas where schools were oversubscribed.

“It is vital that the proposed School Admissions Bill address the local inconsistencies and institutional bias that are very apparent across schools as a whole in Ireland,” he said.

Although data on primary school children’s “nationality...by broad geographical area” is recorded as part of the Department of Education’s annual school census it is not published routinely on the department’s website. Data from the 2013/14 school year was obtained by The Irish Times following a request to the department.

The guidelines which accompany the Department of Education’s annual school census request that schools should fill out the form based on “the nationality that the parents/guardians indicate the pupils are” but goes on to say that “it is understood some schools may not have exact data...and there is no requirement for schools to conduct additional data collections in order to provide this information...We require only the best estimate of nationality where the relevant data is not available at school level”.

This means that, this information is not recorded uniformly: while some principals may record a child’s nationality as being the same as that of their parents, other schools may categorise any child born here as Irish regardless of their background or first language.