Religious dominance in School Admissions in Ireland – Not Catholic, No School?

Religious dominance in School Admissions in Ireland – Not Catholic, No School?

By Sarah Berkery

Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools states that: “Of all the parts of a school curriculum Religious Instruction is by far the most important, as its subject-matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties, and affords the most powerful inducements to their proper use”, is suggestive such a possibility.  This Rule was deleted in December by the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan who stated that it was a “symbol of the past, and not our future.” The deletion of this Rule suggests that the dominance of the Catholic Church in education could be the master of its own downfall in terms of religious education.

The issue of religious dominance in the educational context is fast gathering pace both nationally and internationally with many online petitions calling for an end to the preference of allocating primary school places to Catholic children.

With almost 97% of Irish primary schools having a Catholic ethos protected in law, it must be queried how children of a different denomination or no denomination at all are to effectively vindicate their Constitutional right to free primary education?  The story of a young boy from a “nonreligion” family being refused from nine schools, forcing his parents to postpone his commencement of education for a year is just one of many such stories in Ireland’s multi-cultural society. Reuben’s experience has however usefully served to highlight the not uncommon practice of parents baptizing their children simply to get them into a primary school. Recently Archbishop Martin said that he does “…not believe that presenting baptismal certificates is an appropriate way to judge access to schools.” This view has been welcomed by many as an important contribution to the debate surrounding the need for reform in the area of  access to schools in Ireland.

The results of a recent Behaviour and Attitudes poll found that 84% of those surveyed were of the view that no child should be excluded from a school because of their religion or lack of religion; and 87% felt that the State is responsible for ensuring that children do not experience religious discrimination in the school curriculum.  Undoubtedly the State’s responsibility to ensure that children do not experience religious discrimination extends further than merely the curriculum in schools but to their ability to actually gain admission to these schools in the first instance.

More broadly there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the prohibition on discrimination on grounds of religion, and the religious exemption provision which encourages discrimination on the same grounds in the context of school admission. The reality of this exemption is that if a school wants to protect a particular ethos it can refuse a child admission to the school on the basis that the child is not of that religion. The exemption acts as an ethos-based defence to any claim of what would otherwise be regarded as blatant discrimination.

Patronage the Problem?

Despite recommendations by the Government in 2011 that Catholic schools be dissolved/divested of their patronage, Catholic schools do not appear to want to give up their ownership of schools and in reality they cannot be forced to.  To date, only 8 schools have been handed over by the Catholic church as part of this divestment process. Another complicating factor is the fact that the Catholic Church owns many of the buildings that the schools are based in. Of the 8 schools already handed over only 2 of these schools are being run from buildings vacated by the Catholic Church while the remaining 6 schools have no buildings. Surely, this is evidence that this approach cannot operate?  While this approach bears all the hallmarks of being able to reduce religious dominance in schools by in effect taking the Catholic Church out of the equation, in reality the current approach and associated processes are effectively unworkable.

The need for more community-based schools and non-denominational schools is more important now than ever. Although pluralism in education might take time, as warned by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, unless people of other faiths and indeed of no faith are given more freedom to attend nonreligious schools, catholic education would actually be diluted rather than strengthened.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recently called on the Government to take urgent action to end the freedom that allows Irish schools to discriminate against children on religious grounds. In it’s Report the Committee recommended that the Government “expeditiously undertake concrete measures to significantly increase the availability of non-denominational or multidenominational schools and to amend the existing legislative framework to eliminate discrimination in school admissions, including the Equal Status Act.” Ireland has yet to respond to this Report but it will be interesting to see if the Government will respond by way of a further meaningless commitment to change the system in Ireland or will actually amend the law that allows for blatant discrimination on grounds of religion for access to schools.

Despite using this serious issue of religious discrimination and school admissions as a political football it appears that the only way to ensure, fairness equality and transparency is to consider removing religion from schools altogether and to campaign for a full divestment of religion from schools , or at the very least remove it as an entry requirement/test. To achieve this basic level of fairness,, the Government also needs to consider amending the Equal Status Acts 1998-2000 to remove the provision that allows schools to lawfully refuse a child admission to a school on grounds of religion where that school wants to protect its ethos After all, religion is arguably a private matter for families and individuals and should not be interlinked with education.  The time for change is ripe with the upcoming election and the strong, clear recommendations from the United Nations that this discrimination has to stop.



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