Exclusion from schools for religious reasons may breach rights

Former UN official says schools need to accommodate diversity in their access policies

At present  96% of primary schools are under the control or ownership of religious denominations. The “baptism barrier” allows schools which are over-subscribed to prioritise the admission of children on the basis of  religion

At present 96% of primary schools are under the control or ownership of religious denominations. The “baptism barrier” allows schools which are over-subscribed to prioritise the admission of children on the basis of religion

 

The exclusion of children from State-funded schools on the basis of their religion may be in breach of their human rights, a former UN official and Catholic theologian has warned.

Prof Heiner Bielefeldt, a former UN special rapporteur, told an education conference in Dublin on Monday that schools needed to be inclusive and accommodate diversity in their access policies.

He was speaking as the Minister for Education Richard Bruton considers a number of options aimed at limited or removing the “baptism barrier” from admission to primary schools.

At present about 96 per cent of primary schools are under the control or ownership of religious denominations. The “baptism barrier” allows schools which are over-subscribed to prioritise the admission of children on the basis of their religion.

Speaking at the conference organised by the campaign group Equate, Prof Bielefeldt said: “I think the whole school system must be inclusive. We have a combination of human rights at stake here...the right to education, children’s rights, parental rights, but not least the freedom from religion or belief itself.

“The way we should deal with religious diversity in our increasingly pluralistic society is to give space and not to discriminate [on the basis of religion] when it comes to access to important institutions like schools...”

Last month Mr Bruton announced a number of options aimed at ensuring children have greater access to their local primary school. He has extended the deadline for submissions from interested parties until March 20th.

Options

Speaking at the same conference, Mr Bruton said a “fair degree of consensus” would be needed to chart a way forward.

“We are trying to accommodate more diversity, to create a better environment for young people, to create tolerance towards people of all beliefs which we can see in other countries has been a source of huge problems.

“We’re trying to move our education system in a certain direction. We have to move with a fair degree of consensus with the various stakeholders in order to be successful.”

Prof Bielefeldt said religious instruction, or patron’s programmes, should be taught at school given the demand among parents and students for this approach. However, he said it was important to ensure there is a “low-threshold” opt-out for students that is not “humiliating or intimidating”.

Baptism barrier

While 72 per cent of respondents said they agreed the “baptism barrier” should be dropped, the same poll found that 24 per cent would not have baptised their child if they did not need it to gain entry to school.

Director of Equate Michael Barron said the research showed that most parents were looking for change.

Ireland has changed enormously in the past 20 years; we are a more diverse society than at any other time in our history.

“Consensus is building that a school system which once befitted the needs of parents now no longer does so. Yet for a variety of reasons reform has to date been slow.”