School ‘Baptism barrier’ is unfair on parents, says Bruton

Minister announces plans to remove religious critera in Catholic school admissions

Minister for Education Richard Bruton told an Oireachtas committee that he plans to remove religion in admission to Catholic schools.

 

Minister for Education Richard Bruton says it is very unfair that parents feel they need to baptise children in order to get a place at a local school.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Bruton said last year’s census shows 20 per cent of children are of no religion, but that 90 per cent of schools are catholic.

The Minister announced on Wednesday that Catholic primary schools will not be able discriminate on the basis of religion in their admissions policies.

However, minority faiths – such as the Church of Ireland – may continue to do in order to protect their ethos in cases where they are over-subscribed.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Thursday, he said he did not believe his proposals were unfair but dealt with the problem in a proportionate way.

Mr Bruton said there will always be over-subscribed schools and new schools are being built continually. He said minority religious schools, such as Church of Ireland schools, would quickly cease to be religious schools if they were not allowed some special terms, but that is not true in the case of a Catholic school because 90 per cent of schools are catholic.

On the same programme Labour’s Education spokesperson, Joan Burton, called on Mr Bruton to amend and remove the baptism barrier as soon as possible, and to build more schools where the population is growing.

Ms Burton said she believes it is unfair and unconstitutional to introduce the baptism barrier in State-funded schools, adding that parents should not have to baptise their children in the hope of getting them a place in the local school.

She said that the rights of the parents and children have to be balanced, along with the right of the religious denomination to express its religious ethos in its institutions, but not to discriminate.

“Every child should be a welcome child,” she said.

Discriminate

Catholic schools have since hit out at Mr Burton’s plans, which they say will discriminate against religious families.

The educational office of the Catholic bishops on Wednesday night said the move was unfair and will treat Catholic parents differently from all other faiths.

Ferdia Kelly, chief executive of the Catholic Schools Partnership, said the plans will not solve the problem of access to over-subscribed schools as no additional places are being provided.

Mr Kelly also expressed concern over the constitutionality of the measures which will be “examined carefully” by the sector.

The Church of Ireland’s board of education, by contrast, welcomed the plan which it said took account of concerns among minority faiths.

Emily Logan, the chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, on Thursday welcomed Mr Bruton’s plans as “sophisticated” and a good way to deal with a difficult situation.

At present, oversubscribed schools are legally entitled to prioritise children of their own religion ahead of other children who live closer to the school.

Speaking at an Oireachtas education committee on Wednesday, Mr Bruton said he believed this system was unfair and putting some parents “under pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to their local school.”

“I am seeking to be fair to all parents, while recognising the right of all schools to have their distinctive ethos,” he said.

The move will require a change to the Equal Status Act, which permits schools to discriminate on the basis of religion. Mr Bruton said he planned to do this “without delay”, but did not provide a time-table.

It is understood that while Mr Bruton has obtained preliminary legal advice on the move, any new legislation will need to be examined by the Attorney General.

Previous ministers argued that it was not possible to dismantle the “Baptism barrier” due to competing articles of the Constitution which both protect religion and protect against discrimination.