Removing the Baptism barrier is largely meaningless

State continues to kowtow to church and our children are lambs in middle

A few schools may change a little with an easing of the Baptism barrier but the churches’ grip our children’s minds remains firm. Photograph: Getty Images

A few schools may change a little with an easing of the Baptism barrier but the churches’ grip our children’s minds remains firm. Photograph: Getty Images

 

A wise man once told me that the Catholic Church would rather concede abortion on demand in Ireland than lose control of our schools.

I thought of him this week as reaction from the church came in to Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s announcement that he planned to remove the Baptism barrier from school admissions.

In a widely welcomed speech, Bruton said he planned to stop allowing religious schools that have more applications than they have places to allocate – oversubscribed schools – to give preference to children of the same faith.

Reaction from the church – which controls admission to 96 per cent of publicly funded national schools across the State – was akin to a shrug.

As Bruton set out his four possible alternative admissions systems, the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association murmured that all this fuss was not really necessary, given that problems only arise in about the 20 per cent of schools that are oversubscribed and this was mainly in affluent parts of Dublin.

The Catholic Schools Partnership welcomed the announcement, saying it would contribute “positively” to 12 weeks of consultations on the issue. Alternative systems Bruton’s four possible alternative systems are: 1. A catchment area approach, prohibiting religious schools from giving preference to children of their own religion who live outside the catchment area ahead of non-religious children who live close by. 2. A nearest school rule, allowing religious schools to give preference to a religious child only where it is that child’s nearest school of that religion. 3. A quota system allowing a religious school set aside a certain number of places for children of its own religion. 4. A ban on religious schools using religion as a factor in admissions. Under this fourth approach, however, parents may have to sign a declaration that they support the ethos of the school regardless of their own beliefs.

Some readers may recall a piece I wrote in December 2013 of my difficulties getting a school place for my then three-year-old, unbaptised son for the following September.

He had been rejected from all four local schools despite his name having been on their lists since he was six weeks’ old. The little Church of Ireland school around the corner from us in Dublin 6 had written to tell me my application was “unsuccessful”.

“Your child is currently number 177 on our waiting list . . . All offers of places were made in accordance with the school enrolment policy.”

The criteria according to which children could get in the queue were set out. There were 11 categories, the first being “Church of Ireland children of the [local] parishes,” followed by “Church of Ireland siblings/Protestant siblings” followed by Church of Ireland children from outside the parishes. Next in line are Church of Ireland children from interchurch marriages, then other Protestant children, then other siblings, then children of interchurch marriages where the child is not Church of Ireland, children of staff, Roman Catholic children, Orthodox children and last, the category into which my son fell, “other children”.

In the Roman Catholic school, he was 117th on the list. Date of application was not relevant as siblings of current pupils were prioritised, understandably and “all 17 such applicants are being offered places”.

“The remaining 17 places are being offered to Catholic children resident within the Catholic parish . . . We regret that we are unable to offer your child a place in our junior infant class for 2014.”

In the other two schools – a non-denominational Gaelscoil and a multidenominational school, he was even further down the list such was the demand for places from families across Dublin.

“Rage” could not fully encompass the anger, hurt, exclusion and powerlessness I felt on behalf of my child. All I wanted at the time was a place in school within walking distance of home.

Happily, that summer an Educate Together opened nearby and, though we have to leave our four local schools behind every morning, he has a school place. Children of many religions and none attend and none is favoured. In hindsight, I am relieved his emerging little self dodged a place in a school where he would have been indoctrinated against his family’s beliefs.

The religious education programme Grow in Love is taught for 30 minutes a day to junior and senior infants in Catholic schools. The programme’s teaching manual reads: “The faith formation goals are longer-term goals that have to do with the children’s developing a relationship with God and with one another.”

For those parents who believe assurances that their non-Catholic children can opt out of this instruction, the manual states: “It is assumed that prayer is part of the life of the classroom in a Catholic school, so children will pray every day.”

Bruton’s removal of the Baptism barrier will change none of this. In fact, his fourth proposal threatens to coerce non-Christian parents whose local school is Catholic or Church of Ireland, to sign a consent form for their children’s indoctrination. It remains unclear whether these children would still be permitted to opt out of religious instruction.

The student body of a few schools may change a little with an easing of the Baptism barrier, but the churches’ grip our children’s minds remains firm.

Little wonder the response of the religious has been so muted. I do not begrudge them this quiet victory. It is not their responsibility to ensure children of minority faiths have access to an education free from Christian indoctrination. It is our State’s – as it has been told repeatedly by UN human rights committees.

Removal of the Baptism barrier would be a welcome, though largely symbolic and meaningless, step forward in the battle for the hearts and minds of our children. Church and State know this.

The State continues to kowtow to the church and our children are the lambs in the middle.

Kitty Holland is social affairs correspondent

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