What makes a Church of Ireland school?
Is it the patron’s influence? Is it the make-up of the board of management? Is it the number of Church of Ireland staff?
Carolyn Good: Undersubscribed schools do not, and cannot, discriminate. If there is space, there is space
Schools were taken by surprise on October 3rd when the then minister for education Richard Bruton commenced four parts of the the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2016 with immediate effect, and with no guidance for faith-based schools affected by changes. He was not expected to do so until later this year.
Many schools had started the admissions process for next year, and were that afternoon advised by management bodies to freeze and not to offer any places for the next school year. Boards of management were left temporarily in limbo.
The Act directs the majority faith Roman Catholic schools to remove reference to a child’s religion in admissions; but makes provision for positive discrimination for minority faith applicants in the case of oversubscribed minority faith schools.
As a member of the Church of Ireland I now have to reconcile my professional ideas on school admissions with my personal ideas on worship and church membership.
We all need to consider how Ireland is changing, how our churches are adapting, how our schools are responding, and how we personally react to those changes.
There is a lot of incorrect information bandied about around school admissions. Schools are accused in trials in the local supermarket or at the church gate of abandoning or diluting their ethos, or ,contrarily, of unfairly putting pressure on families to increase engagement with the parish.
Another myth is that schools cherry-pick their desired cohort of pupils. That is simply untrue. Undersubscribed schools do not, and cannot, discriminate. If there is space, there is space. As it says in the hymn: “The creed and the colour and the name don’t matter.”
Under the Act oversubscribed minority faith schools may refuse admission only if the refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school. Now we open Pandora’s Box. How do we favour minority faith applicants? How do we know who they are?
What makes a Church of Ireland school? Is it the patron’s influence? Is it the chairperson’s? Is it the make-up of the board of management? Is it the number of Church of Ireland staff employed? Is it the enrolment numbers? Is it the main language spoken by the pupils? Is it how many times the school has a faith-based assembly or goes to church? Is it how many times the rector visits?
How does our Church of Ireland ethos and tradition affect how we welcome people? How do we see mission? Are we all about looking after the needs of the converted or do we have a role in reaching out beyond?
If oversubscribed and forced to discriminate in admissions, how do we assess minority faith applicants? Church attendance has changed. Regular attendance is now once a month, and often only for the novelty services and big church events.
Do regular attenders get priority? How regular is regular? Do we reward those who pay sustentation? If you sign up to the flower rota do you get a place in the school? We talk about a parish register but what are the criteria to be included on a parish list?
Do we, the church, agree on a definition of what it is to be Church of Ireland?
If, in an effort to identify minority faith applicants, boards of management request the signature of the faith leader on an application form, how does the rector decide if the applicant is Church of Ireland enough? Does the board of management base its decision on the opinion of one person?
Bruton was very clear that the “baptismal barrier” was to be addressed in this Act. Far from remove it, will the oversubscribed minority faith schools feel compelled to use this document to identify minority faith children?
These are not easy questions, and those of us involved in schools have heard anecdotes that demonstrate how difficult it can be to continue to offer quality, loving, welcoming, global and Godly faith-based education to all the children whose parents want exactly that.
I don’t purport to have the answers to the questions I pose, but I hope to provoke a few more people to reflect with me.