Baptism barrier in schools here to stay
Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30
Education Minister Richard Bruton will not be tackling the so-called 'baptism barrier' that allows Catholic schools to give priority enrolment to children of their faith.
The minister has announced a new initiative to speed up the process of reducing Catholic Church dominance of primary education, where it controls 90pc of schools.
But it does not include any moves to end the 'Catholic first' policy, which sometimes means children cannot attend their nearest school because they have not been baptised.
The 'baptism rule' can cause an issue in about 20pc of schools which are oversubscribed and where it is used to prioritise admissions.
Last year, the then Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan sparked a row with Fine Gael by insisting that no one should be forced to baptise their child to get them into a particular school.
But with no Labour influence within the new Government, the issue is set to be sidelined.
Mr Bruton also pointed to the constitutional right of denominational schools to protect their ethos - and the need to balance that with the rights of parents. He said it was something that "we will have to sit down with the (Oireachtas) committee to discuss".
A new type of primary school, under the joint control of the Catholic Church and the State, is among the options being considered.
Mr Bruton is exploring new ways of offering parents greater choice and meeting demand for greater diversity among the country's 3,200 primary schools.
New Church-State partnerships are most likely to happen where small, Catholic-run schools amalgamate, with the local education and training board (ETB) coming in to share control. ETBs are already running 11 schools, known as community national schools, but want to expand in this sector.
The minister is keen to break the impasse that has arisen over the initiative started by former education minister Ruairi Quinn five years ago. A move launched by Mr Quinn to divest some Catholic schools to other patron bodies has moved at snail's pace - only eight transferred between 2013 and 2015.
Mr Bruton said he wanted to accelerate the divestment process in line with a commitment in the Programme for Government that 400 schools provide non- or multi-denominational education by 2030. That would represent a four-fold increase on current provision.
The minister said there was a need for a range of models to advance the process and, up to 2020, he has set a target of 20 non- or multi-denominational schools opening every year.
Some of those would be brand new schools, in areas of population growth. However, with primary enrolments due to peak in 2019, the need for new builds is already reducing.
While new schools have been used to create choice in new neighbourhoods, the challenge has been of offering diversity in long-established communities.
The Catholic Church is open to the idea of joint patronage with ETBs, in the context of small school amalgamations. A benefit for a Church struggling with falling priest numbers would be the ETB taking on administrative functions.
The Church would also favour the model of religious education provision in community national schools, which allows for faith formation during school time, compared with Educate Together schools, where there is no religious instruction.
Aside from the question of joint patronage, Mr Bruton said that he believes community national schools would be attractive for a lot of parents and is a model he wants to see develop. He said there would be potential for partnerships among a range of different patron bodies.