School admissions bill: Time to tackle the baptism barrier

Some 96 per cent of State-funded primary schools are under the patronage of religious denominations

 

There is much to welcome in a new school admissions Bill published recently. The legislation aims to increase transparency and fairness regarding how children secure school places. It makes clear that every school must be welcoming of all young people, regardless of their colour, their abilities or disabilities. It will help, in particular, to end the soft barriers that some of our schools put in the way of children with special needs.

But there is a glaring omission: there is no provision to tackle the critical issue of religious discrimination in the admissions policies of most State-funded schools. Some 96 per cent of our State-funded primary schools are under the patronage of religious denominations. The so-called “Baptism barrier” allows these schools to refuse to admit children from different faiths or none in cases where they are over-subscribed. These rules are woefully out of step with an increasingly diverse population.

Mr Bruton has said that an Oireachtas committee will advise on how to proceed on this issue. It is a complex one which will require striking a balance between allowing schools to protect their religious ethos and providing children with the right to access their local school.

But it can be done. There are numerous solutions – such as amending equal status legislation - but the political will to decisively address them seems lacking.

Mr Bruton’s plans to deal with the matter separately by way of a lengthy Oireachtas committee has the air of long-fingering a controversial issue. It is questionable whether it will be dealt with within this Government’s lifetime This report should, at the very least, be fast-tracked so a fairer admissions regime can be in place for next year.

Many parents are demanding that their legislators address this issue. The fact that many parents of no faith feel compelled to baptise their children to secure a school place for their children is not good enough in a pluralist society.

Our children deserve better from our State-funded school system.

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