Friday 18 October 2019

'Baptism barrier' lifted as schools can't choose pupils based on religion

Richard Bruton. Picture: Collins
Richard Bruton. Picture: Collins
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The 'baptism barrier' has been consigned to the history books.

A ban on the use of religion to select children for admission to primary schools, in almost all cases, will kick in from today.

In a momentous move, Education Minister Richard Bruton is giving effect to a series of legal reforms aimed at making the school admissions process fairer and more transparent.

They include an end to the baptism barrier, which allowed a system dominated by Church-controlled schools - 90pc of them Catholic - to give priority entry to children of their faith, ahead of children living closer.

The practice was increasingly out of step with modern Ireland, where over 20pc of the parent-age population is non-religious and about 51pc of marriages in 2017 occurred in a Catholic ceremony.

As well as the removal of religion as a selection criterion in admissions policies, from today schools are prohibited from seeking a booking deposit other than in very limited circumstances.

The legislation also gives the Education Minister power to compel a school to open a special class to cater for pupils with special educational needs. Another key change gives the minister power to direct schools to co-operate with each other in relation to their admission processes.

Mr Bruton described it as a "hugely important law" that would "create greater confidence for parents that the admissions criteria laid down by schools and the procedures used by them were visible, legitimate reasonable and fair".

He said: "Removal of religion as a criteria for admission seeks to be fair to all parents including non-religious families that will now find that in virtually all publicly funded primary schools they will be treated the same as all other families in school admissions."

The 'commencement order' being signed by the minister today gives effect to some of the provisions of the Education (Admissions to School) Act, which was passed earlier this year.

The legislation also paves the way for other significant changes, including a 25pc limit on the number of children or grandchildren of past pupils a school may enrol, and a ban on waiting lists.

These measures will come into effect for the 2020/2021 year and will benefit families who move into a new area or who rent and who, beforehand, may have found themselves unable to get their children into a local school of choice.

Mr Bruton said before commencing these two provisions, he wanted to give time to schools to start preparing their admissions policies in line with the spirit of the legislation.

There will also be consultation with the Education Partners, such as school management bodies.

The end of the baptism barrier comes after years of campaigning by social justice groups and parents, many of whom have baptised their children just to gain entry to their local school.

The change is being made possible by an amendment to equal status legislation, which bans discrimination on religion grounds but which, up to today, allowed derogation to denominational schools to prioritise children of their faith.

In reality, it will affect only about 20pc of primary schools - mainly in urban areas where demand exceeds the number of places - because most schools can accommodate all applicants, whether the child is baptised or not.

Irish Independent

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