Why we are going to make school admissions an election issue
We have reached a national consensus on the need for fundamental reform of our school system - the question is no longer 'if' but 'how' and 'when'.
Each August, while parents and children get ready for a new school year, the denominational nature of our schools gets media attention. We are reminded that the great majority (92pc) of primary schools are Catholic and that 5pc are under the control of one of the Protestant denominations.
These schools are allowed to discriminate against children who are not members of those religions. It is pointed out that this system undermines the fundamental right of all children to access an education in a 21st century republic.
Many courageous parents and campaigners have been pursuing a fairer education system for generations and now their message has taken hold.
After the success of the marriage equality campaign many parents stopped being quiet about their children's lack of access to a school place. They saw an Ireland that had changed and come of age - they want equality in the classroom too. Indeed, as we start 2016, equality in education is an idea that's time has come.
EQUATE is a children's rights organisation working for substantial change in how education is delivered in Ireland.
A Behaviour & Attitudes national survey commissioned by EQUATE shows that we are a nation that values equality and a nation that values education. Some 84pc of Irish people surveyed believe that reform is needed so that no child is excluded because of their religion or non-religion. At EQUATE we are working to make this reform reality.
We believe that our education system must be fit for purpose in 21st century Ireland, reflecting the reality of the diversity of our families.
We believe that education is a fundamental cornerstone of our society and our schools must operate in the best interest of all our children, communities and our society.
All school patron bodies, including the churches that have done great work for education in Ireland, are calling for reform. Parents' groups and teachers' bodies, political parties and the Department of Education and Skills itself are doing likewise. Former president, Mary McAleese has called for a pluralist system to replace the Catholic 'monopoly' in our education system and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has repeatedly called for greater divestment of schools.
EQUATE is proposing a series of far reaching but achievable reforms. Our proposed changes would mean that no child is excluded from their local school because of their religion or identity, and also that more multi- and non-denominational schools are made available.
Change, although slow, has started. The report from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in 2012 provided a roadmap and secured commitment for change. The Department of Education and Skills has demonstrated its desire for reform, including when the Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan announced the repeal of Rule 68 of the national school handbook, coinciding with the launch of EQUATE.
School admission reform has started. But so much more needs to be done, and the issue is now an urgent one. Major reform could happen over the lifetime of the next government.
Concerned parents from all over the country are contacting us. Our Behaviours and Attitudes survey shows that 62pc of people want reform of school patronage to be an election issue. Early this year we are launching a public awareness campaign to make this happen. We cannot, as a modern pluralist democracy, allow another generation of Irish children and families grow up through a school system which is unfair and unequal.
Michael Barron is Executive Director of EQUATE