Equate was set up in October 2015 as a time-limited catalyst organisation with a mission to further equality in education. We worked towards an inclusive school system that would reflect the current reality of the diversity of parents, children, young people and communities in Ireland today as reflected in Census 2016.
It was our belief that no child should be excluded at any level from publicly funded schools because of their religion or beliefs. ‘We worked for reforms in school admissions, the school day and access to non-denominational schooling.
Over the two short years of Equate there has been more movement in this area of education reform than at any other time in this country’s recent history.
We have seen some very significant developments including the repeal of Rule 68, which gave religion classes a privileged status in national schools, and strong recommendations to Ireland from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on tackling religious discrimination in our school system.
We secured programme for government commitments on advancing equality in education and a commitment by Community National Schools to stop preferencing one religion over others.
We were involved in a major national consultation on the baptism barrier, following the findings of which, together with an Oireachtas committee report on the issues Minister for Education Richard Bruton made a clear commitment of to end the baptism barrier in the vast majority of State schools.
We worked to change the conversation about religion and schools in Ireland from one of patrons and vested interests to one about parents and families.
Our intention was to make it safe to talk about the issues and to create a space where movement was possible.
The public discussion on the issues, particularly the baptism barrier, has with some notable exceptions, been considered and respectful.
Our approach was to make the case for change through solid research, conferences and seminars, and by supporting parents to speak out about the discrimination their children are experiencing.
At Equate, we worked to make change possible by providing practical solutions to legislators in the form of legal opinion and policy proposals and by building a critical mass of support through on-line communications and via regional community and parents forums.
Recently, Minister Bruton committed to dealing with the baptism barrier through amendments to the Education (School Admissions) Bill currently before the Oireachtas – meaning that it could be ended within months.
We are now on the cusp of legislating to remove this unfair and discriminatory barrier from the vast majority of schools, something research consistently shows most parents want.
We now have, for the first time, cross-party consensus on the need for this change to happen.
Now is the time for the Government to deliver on its promises and get the job done. All political parties and Oireachtas members must continue to work together to enact this legislation without further delay.
I am fully cognisant of the fact that much more remains to be done in Irish schools in relation to religious discrimination.
I know that our good friends at Education Equality will continue to build upon the work of the past two years but they can’t do it alone. Most children go to school and the right to education is the only children’s right specifically named in our constitution. Despite this, it is notable a children’s rights lens is often not applied to key decisions within the education sector. I believe that greater involvement in education from children and youth rights groups would help bridge this gap and I urge other children, youth and equality organisations to become more involved in this work.
I hope that Equate has opened up a space for such involvement and that others will take up the mantel. There is so much more to do and it is time for more radical reforms.
We still have a situation where children are sitting in corners and corridors while religious instruction, which is contrary to their beliefs, happens in state-funded schools.
More often than not no alternative is put in place for these children and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s work to create a subject on ethics and religious beliefs has been met with serious objections.
The only real and sustainable solution is that provision is made for religious instruction classes to happen outside of normal school hours. This way children and families can opt-in rather than being excluded.
Schools and teachers need to be supported to work in an Ireland where far more children come from minority religious families and where up to 20 per cent are of no religion.
We worked on community diversity guidelines to help provide some of this support and I urge the Department of Education to continue this important work.
Fundamentally, I believe we need to look beyond the present patronage system of education in Ireland – one where 96 per cent of primary and more that 50 per cent of secondary schools are maintained by private religious groups.
Education is a cornerstone of our society and we all agree that schools should operate in the best interest of children.
Yet by essentially subcontracting out our schools, the State, and we, as citizens, are not taking full responsibility for it. This must change so that all of our children are treated equally and feel included in our school system.
* Michael Barron was executive director of Equate, a children and family rights organisation which worked for greater equality in education in Ireland. The organisation was wound up last month.