Friday 15 December 2017

Bishops try to find new compromise in 'baptism barrier' row

Mr Bruton says he wants to limit or remove the role of religion in school admissions. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Mr Bruton says he wants to limit or remove the role of religion in school admissions. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Catholic bishops have been working on a compromise to the controversy over who gets priority admission to their schools.

The proposal centres on giving first choice to Catholic children within the local area, and second choice to children of a different, or no, faith within the area, ahead of Catholic children from elsewhere.

Details of their recent discussions emerged as Education Minister Richard Bruton announced plans to tackle the so-called "baptism barrier" that gives Catholic children priority admission to most primary schools.

Mr Bruton says he wants to limit or remove the role of religion in school admissions. He has set out four options for discussion, and says he will draw up legislative proposals by June.

An option involving the use of catchment areas to decide priority is closest to the thinking of the Catholic bishops.

The minister's announcement drew a mixed reaction. It was described by a leading educationalist, Professor Áine Hyland of University College Cork, as "a historic day".

The multi-denominational school body Educate Together applauded it as a "first step towards repealing the 'baptism barrier'".

The move was also supported by Equate, a campaign group, whose director Michael Barron saw it as a "firm commitment to resolve the issue".

But another lobby group, Education Equality, expressed concern that the announcement of public consultation was "a worrying indication that progress will be further delayed, and that three of the four options the minister has outlined would allow for continued discrimination on religious grounds".

David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, a Catholic think-tank, said it was "part of a wider pattern of moves against faith schools, a pattern that amounts to an attitude of hostility".

The Church of Ireland was cautious, reflecting concern that any move to limit the role of religion on school admissions could have a severe impact on their sector.

The protection of minority religion schools is the major issue of concern for policymakers.

While the focus is to address the dominant position of the Catholic Church in education - it runs 90pc of primary schools - any move to tackle that could have unintended consequences for minority religion schools, because the minister cannot discriminate in favour of, or against, any denominational group.

The Church of Ireland Board of Education said it was grateful for the minister highlighting the "important position of religious minority schools".

Adrian Oughton, from the board, told yesterday of a small Church of Ireland primary school in Drogheda, Co Louth, whose pupils come from eight to nine miles away in each direction.

The Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA) said what Mr Bruton was proposing to address occurred in only the small number of schools that were oversubscribed, mainly in Dublin and small pockets in the commuter belt near the capital.

CPSMA general secretary Seamus Mulconry said that the issues arising from it may well affect minority groups adversely and urged that these be taken properly into account. He said the Catholic Church was already engaged in this issue.

Labour Party education spokesperson Joan Burton welcomed the statement but said urgency was sadly lacking, while Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne accused Mr Bruton of a "kiteflying" PR exercise.

Irish Independent

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