Sunday 23 October 2016

Minister kicks cans down road as parents wait for key changes

John Walshe

Published 07/07/2016 | 02:30

Former Education Minister Ruairí Quinn Photo: Patrick Browne
Former Education Minister Ruairí Quinn Photo: Patrick Browne

What's another year when it comes to bringing about long-overdue changes in education? The tortured progress of the Admission to Schools Bill is a classic example of how difficult it is to progress reforms.

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In June 2011 former Education Minister Ruairí Quinn published a discussion document outlining exactly the same changes in admissions policies that were promised yesterday by the current minister Richard Bruton.

Mr Bruton hopes to have the bill enacted in time for the start of the 2017 school year, with parents hopefully benefiting from the abolition of application fees and greater transparency in admissions.

But two cans have been kicked down the road - reserved places for children of past pupils, which is a big issue in fee-paying schools, and no places in some Catholic primary schools for non-baptised children.

The minister was at pains to stress that he is on the 'right' side on both issues. He favours a 25pc cap on guaranteed places for children of past pupils. He also acknowledges that the issue of non-baptised children getting into schools has to be addressed.

The irony is that it's easier for a Fine Gael minister to tackle both than it was for Labour's Quinn or his successor Jan O'Sullivan.

When Labour tried to deal with these issues in the previous coalition government, it ran into opposition from some Fine Gael sources who saw it as part of an anti fee-paying schools and anti-Church agenda.

Mr Bruton won't face the same level of open distrust on these issues that his two immediate predecessors did. If - and it's still a big if - he manages to deal with both issues satisfactorily, this will play well with some of the electorate in the south Dublin belt and elsewhere.

The official reason for delaying decisions on both is to do with technicalities. The Attorney General is known to be insisting that any cap on places for past pupils has to be enshrined in the actual legislation, not in subsequent regulations. And, as Fine Gael does not have a majority, it has to consult with other parties about what cap, if any, can be inserted by way of amendment.

The second issue is more contentious, as discussions showed in the Dáil last week when Labour discussed its draft bill which would effectively get rid of what's now known as the 'baptism barrier' to enrolment in overcrowded schools.

The minister moved an amendment referring the issue to the Fianna Fáil-chaired Oireachtas Committee on Education which will have public hearings on the complex issues involved, not least of which is whether or not lifting the barrier is unconstitutional.

Mr Bruton rejected suggestions by Joan Burton that he was opposed to the Labour bill, saying that his approach was constructive and not in the spirit of St Augustine. "I have forgotten what he said but I know the phrase" admitted the minister, to which the new Labour leader Brendan Howlin responded "let him be chaste, but not just yet".

Changes in admissions policies cannot come soon enough for many parents.

John Walshe was adviser to Minister Ruairi Quinn

Irish Independent

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