Breda O'Brien: Move against denominational schools not a good idea

Proposals likely to damage minority Christian traditions and cut diversity

Minister for Education Richard Bruton maintains the Dáil “has an appetite” to deal with the ‘baptism barrier’ issue and that there is a clear timetable for legislation.


Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced a “consultation process” on admissions to religious-run schools at an event run by a lobby group called Equate, which campaigns for secular education. Former Labour minister for education Rúairí Quinn is an advisory member of Equate, which is funded by the One Foundation.

On the One Foundation website, it quotes one grantee as saying: “One gave us instant weight – access to people, supports, mentoring and growing credibility.”  

Skipping the step of getting grassroots funding and going straight to a fully-fledged organisation certainly does give instant weight, but not necessarily in a way that enhances democracy.

The signals sent out by announcing a consultation while sitting at a table paid for by the One foundation were clear, but the Minister knew that very few media would question it. Instead, there was a predictable obliging chorus of “End discrimination! Ban the baptismal barrier!”

When did the media become cheerleaders for the well-funded and powerful? Selection criteria for schools’ admissions only apply if there are not enough places, generally in urban areas and parts of the commuter belt. But successive ministers have not been challenged on their lack of planning.

Cheerleading media

The media cheerleading also implies that denominational education is divisive, while secular education is allegedly neutral. There is no such thing as neutral education. Those opposing faith-based education want a one-size-fits-all approach that will actively discriminate against people who want a religious ethos. How is that neutral?

And Catholic schools have been found again and again to be more diverse and inclusive in terms of social class and ethnicity. Freedom of religion, both to participate and not participate, is enshrined in our Constitution.

The irony is that each of the Minister’s four proposed options will impact most on minority Christian traditions and will reduce diversity in the system. They will also reduce, not enhance, parental choice for many for whom religion is not an issue.

For example, one proposal would only allow schools to give preference to a child when it is the child’s nearest school of that particular religion. So take a woman who commutes 20 miles to work, near to where her parents live. Currently, she can apply for a place in a school near her workplace and drop her children to her mother and collect them after work.

Under the “nearest school” proposals, she would have to enrol her children in the nearest school regardless of whether it suited her or not.

Parents are the primary educators and have a right, where practicable, to have their children attend a school that reflects their values. This column has supported the growth of Educate Together schools and the divestment of some Catholic schools. However, the quid pro quo should be that denominational schools are not watered down until they are indistinguishable from any other school.

Church of Ireland and other Protestant schools will be disadvantaged by all four proposals. Obviously, they will be obliterated by the fourth proposal, that religion cannot be a criterion at all. One of the other proposals is to institute catchment areas. For some Protestant boarding schools, their catchment area is the island of Ireland.

Nearest-school rule

The nearest-school rule, that is, allowing religious schools to give preference to a “religious child” only where it is that child’s nearest school of that particular religion, would also cause problems. (Not least because of the terminology, because Christianity is one religion. Catholics and Protestants are different traditions within that religion.)

Aside from that, would Protestant parents be forced to send their child to a Quaker school because it is the nearest, even though their preference would be for a Church of Ireland school that is further away, or vice versa?

The third proposal of a quota system could be incredibly unfair unless it were set very low. If there are 110 places available within a Church of Ireland school and there are 110 children of that tradition who need them, should they not get those places?

Britain has just decided to abandon a quota system, because it did not make minority faith schools (for that, read Islamic schools) more diverse and it actively discriminated against Catholics.

What about the fact that in some Protestant schools, up to 30 per cent of their intake comes from new Irish who belong to African Pentecostal and Apostolic traditions? Imposing rules based on catchment areas, the nearest school or quotas could actively discriminate against these minorities who value their faith and their faith schools.

Academic excellence

Meanwhile, the fact that principals in a so-called free education system spend much of their time fundraising for essentials while primary class sizes are the second-highest in Europe does not get a fraction of the attention.

Ironically, denominational schools are highly valued and sought after elsewhere, including the UK, where Catholic schools in particular are recognised as academically excellent and socially and ethnically diverse.

The only way to combat slick, well-funded lobby groups who want to end denominational education is to make it clear to local politicians that their constituents want to fix what is broken – underfunding and overcrowding – and preserve what is working well: our local schools.

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