Baptism barrier: time to dismantle outdated admissions rules

Children should not be excluded from their local school based on their religion

 

Society is changing fast. Yet, 96 per cent of our State-funded primary schools remain under the patronage of religious denominations. The so-called Baptism barrier rule allows oversubscribed schools to refuse to admit children on the basis of religion. These rules are woefully out of step with an increasingly pluralist population.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s plans to limit the role of religion in admission to publicly-funded schools are a step in the right direction. For too long parents of non-religious or minority faith backgrounds have been placed at the back of the queue for admission to oversubscribed schools. Children can be denied places in their local school purely on the basis of their religion. Anxious parents, as a result, end up scrambling to find schools which will take their children. It is no surprise that many mothers and father feel pressurised to baptise their children in order to ensure a place in their local school.

The scale of the problem is contested but there is no mistaking the need to tackle it. UN bodies have consistently criticised State rules as a breach of children’s rights, while the Ombudsman for Children and Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission have also issued stinging rebukes.

The irony is that this is a relatively new problem. For about 140 years primary schools were obliged to accept all admissions, regardless of faith. Rule changes introduced since the mid-1960s strengthened the grip of religious bodies on education and the Equal Status Act in 2000 allowed discrimination on the basis of religion.

Dismantling the Baptism barrier will require solutions to allow minority faiths, in particular, to protect their religious ethos in some form. These complexities should be no excuse for further delay. Many parents are rightly demanding that their legislators address this issue. Families today should not have to fear having a non-baptised child being a barrier to gaining entry. Nor should they have to sign up to a belief system that is not their own. The admissions process to our State-funded education system needs to accommodate all of our children.