'Baptism barrier' to end - but minorities can still refuse kids
There is a furious backlash at plans to end the 'baptism barrier' in Catholic schools while offering different rules to those run by other religious groups.
Education Minister Richard Bruton has brought forward a proposal that will stop the country's 2,800 Catholic schools from discriminating on the grounds of religion.
But schools run by minority religions will still be allowed to refuse pupils from other denominations, under plans to finally end the so-called 'baptism barrier'.
Mr Bruton will allow education facilities under the patronage of the Church of Ireland and other religions to factor ethos into their admission policies.
The controversial move comes after intense lobbying from Fine Gael ministers and backbenchers who warned the minister an outright ban on the 'baptism barrier' could have unintended consequences for Protestant schools.
Nine of 10 schools are currently under the ethos of the Catholic Church, whereas just 191 (6pc) are run by other religious organisations.
But Ferdia Kelly, CEO of the Catholic Schools Partnership, warned that Mr Bruton's proposal "will not create one additional place in oversubscribed schools".
"We have concerns around the constitutionality of what is being proposed and we will take advice and make a decision as to how best to proceed," he said.
He said parents who choose to have their children educated in the Catholic tradition were being "singled out for this treatment" and being "treated differently" to parents choosing another faith tradition.
Educate Together CEO Paul Rowe said the measure meant in oversubscribed Catholic schools, non-baptised children would be more represented in pupil numbers.
"Of course every child should be able to attend their local school - but, crucially, their local school should treat all children with equal respect, both at the school gates and in the classroom, regardless of religious, social or cultural background," he said.
"It is welcome that the baptism barrier is to fall. However, the lack of school choice for all families in Ireland remains the fundamental problem."
The proposals announced by Mr Bruton raise complex legal and constitutional issues.
"I believe it is unfair that preference can be given by publicly funded denominational schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who live close to the school," Mr Bruton said.
"I also believe that it is unfair that some parents, who might otherwise not do so, feel pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to their local school."
Mr Bruton revealed his new strategy during a discussion on the School Admissions Bill, which is to restrict the number of school places that can be reserved for children of past pupils to 25pc.
However, he has decided not to include changes to the 'baptism barrier' in the legislation, which is currently before the Dáil to allow for further consultation.
The minister noted that 80pc of schools have sufficient capacity to take all applicants.
"It is in the 20pc other schools that this issue now needs to be addressed," he said.
"I am seeking to be fair to all parents, while recognising the right of all schools to have their distinctive ethos.
"The aim is to meet the wishes of non-denominational parents - who now amount to well over 10pc of their cohort - without unfairly impinging on the rights of other children."
The most recent census data shows that 78pc of the population considers itself Catholic.
Labour Party spokesperson on education Joan Burton yesterday called on the Government to move quickly to end the 'baptism barrier', saying the census figures should be "a wake-up call".
The Church of Ireland General Synod Board of Education said it "welcomes the recognition by Minister Bruton of specific concerns raised by minority faiths".