New Bill seeks to remove ‘Baptism barrier’ from education system

Social Democrats say current legislation amounts to ‘blatant discrimination’

Social Democrat Róisín Shorthall, alongside fellow party-member Catherine Murphy. Ms Shorthall says the party’s Bill would, if enacted, “eradicate one of the great discriminations of Irish society”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Social Democrat Róisín Shorthall, alongside fellow party-member Catherine Murphy. Ms Shorthall says the party’s Bill would, if enacted, “eradicate one of the great discriminations of Irish society”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

A new Bill to be published by the Social Democrats on Thursday seeks to remove the “Baptism barrier” for primary school children.

At present, oversubscribed schools are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion in their admissions policies under the Equal Status Act (2000).

The Social Democrat TD Róisín Shorthall has drafted a Private Members’ Bill aimed at repealing the relevant section – section 7 (3) (c) – of the legislation which applies to publicly-funded schools.

This, the party says, would ensure that all children have fair and equal access to publicly-funded schools, regardless of their faith.

Introducing the Equal Status (Amendment) Bill 2017, Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall TD said: “It is shameful that in Ireland we still allow schools to select children on the basis of religious beliefs. It is anti-child. It is anti-education. It is blatant discrimination.”

She said the Social Democrats believed that our education system should be designed with the “interests of all children at heart – not the interests of religious groups”.

‘Eradicate’

“That is why we are bringing forward this Bill. It would eradicate one of the great discriminations of Irish society,” she said.

“It would prioritise children instead of religion, and it would send a signal that Ireland is finally moving to separate out the activities of the State from those of religious bodies.”

The Bill comes at a time when the Government is involved in a consultation over the removal or partial removal of the Baptism barrier.

It has become a highly contentious issue given that more than 90 per cent of primary schools remain under the patronage of the Catholic Church or other religious organisations.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has issued a series of options on how to tackle the issue.

The four options involve allowing schools to favour children of their own religion only when those children live within the school’s catchment area, or when that school is their nearest one; a quota-based system; and an outright ban on using religion as a factor in admissions.

The proposal to oblige religious schools to prioritise locally-based children in their admissions appears to be a front-runner in plans to limit or remove the Baptism barrier from education.

Support

In response to the consultation process launched by Mr Bruton last January, this option has attracted support from Catholic bodies, Fianna Fáil and Labour.

This proposal would not remove religion as a factor in admissions. However, it would prohibit religious schools from giving preference to children of their own faith who live outside their catchment area, ahead of non-religious or minority faith children who live in the locality.

Fianna Fáil says simply abolishing section seven of the Equal Status Act – which allows schools to discriminate on the basis of religion – would “endanger minority faith schools’ right to their defend their ethos” and “ride roughshod over all of their concerns”.

However, groups such as the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and campaign groups such as Equate favour a more radical proposal for an outright prohibition on using religion as a factor in admissions.