John Walshe: Minister gets tangled up in knots over old school ties
Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30
Fine Gael TDs in the fee paying school belt of south county Dublin breathed a sigh of relief when Labour's Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan effectively shelved the controversial schools admissions bill during the week.
It was all so predictable. The clock is ticking louder on the lifetime of the current Dáil, which means there simply isn't time this side of a general election to enact many of the bills promised by various ministers. Even if there was, the reality is that had she tried to push the schools bill through it would have come at the cost of a huge row with Fine Gael.
The bigger party in government was never entirely happy with what some saw as unnecessary interference in admissions policies. Greater transparency in entry rules was all very well but the idea, for instance, of limiting the number of reserved places for children of past pupils to just 10pc of the annual intake was never on as far as they were concerned.
Even worse was the notion that the 10pc figure would have to be written into law. The original intention of Ruairi Quinn - who first proposed the admissions bill as a lasting contribution to equity and fairness in Irish education - was to put a figure into accompanying regulations. These would be drawn up after consultation. But the Attorney General's office ruled that whatever threshold was planned it would have to be written into primary legislation rather than placed into secondary regulations.
Whole battalions of barristers and legal experts were available to fee-paying schools to challenge the constitutionality of the bill if it ever passed. It wasn't just the fee-paying sector that was upset. For example, schools with strong GAA traditions were also perturbed that they could not guarantee places to the offspring of hurling or football greats who happened to be past pupils. The upshot of the delay in enacting the bill is that the 'old boy' and 'old girl' networks remain alive and well, for the time being at least.
However, Fine Gael's relief may be temporary if - and it's a very questionable if - Labour hold on to the education portfolio after the election. Labour's manifesto will inevitably promise to re-introduce the bill. But this promise will be accompanied by a much more radical pledge to compel schools to prioritise local children, no matter what their religion is.
At present overcrowded Catholic primary schools are legally entitled to give priority to baptised children seeking enrolment ahead of non-baptised applicants. A parallel facility is, of course, available to schools run by other religions who can give priority to children of their particular creed.
But the 'Catholics First' rule, as the shorthand version has it, causes the greatest angst and anger for those parents who cannot get their unbaptised children into local schools. The lack of real choice in a system dominated by Catholic schools is becoming an increasingly urgent political issue. Two new groups have been set up recently to campaign for change in this area.
The only way O'Sullivan can force schools to prioritise local children is by amending the Equal Status Act. The act was aimed at ending discrimination on various grounds but the Churches were granted a derogation. In other words they were effectively given legal permission to give priority in admissions to applicants of their particular faith.
The minister acknowledged some months ago that there were constitutional issues which prevented her from reversing this for existing schools. She now thinks she may have come up with a way of dealing with it while at the same time building in protection for the small number of minority schools which serve dispersed communities. The devil will be in the detail, and if such a bill ever sees the government light of day it will be scrutinised by constitutional lawyers from all sides.
Her revelation that she already has a draft coupled with the announcement to remove Section 68 from the Rules for National Schools which stresses the importance of religion prompted a rattled and angry response from the Catholic Church. It earned her good old fashioned headlines like "Minister under fire from bishops on schools" and "Bishops tell minister not to 'interfere' in schools". Getting a belt even from a weakened crozier trades well with Labour's natural constituency and with some of those frustrated parents who traipse from school to school looking for a place for their children.
Fine Gael has wisely not commented on her very provocative speech which strikes at some fundamental fault lines developing between the two parties in government. Fine Gael clearly has its eye on the education portfolio which has alternated between Fianna Fáil and Labour ministers for almost three decades. The last Fine Gael minister, Paddy Cooney held the post from February 1986 to March 1987 - his main achievement was sorting out a prolonged teachers' pay dispute but he had no appetite for major education reform.
Fine Gael is putting a lot of thought into its proposals for reforming education into the future. Its educational agenda is likely to be much different from that being pursued by the present minister on controversial areas such as school choice and higher education funding. Further differences are emerging on other social issues as Labour seeks to put some clear water between itself and Fine Gael and regain its separate identify. But should they get back together again compromise will be inevitable. That's the way coalitions work.
John Walshe was a special adviser to former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn