Saturday 18 January 2020

Bruton's plan to remove schools 'baptism barrier' due within weeks

Legal challenge from religious interests expected

Minister Richard Bruton
Minister Richard Bruton
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Two key moves to reduce the Catholic Church's control of Irish education will be made within weeks, just as bishops prepare for their biggest celebration in almost 40 years.

Two key moves to reduce the Catholic Church's control of Irish education will be made within weeks, just as bishops prepare for their biggest celebration in almost 40 years.

Plans by Education Minister Richard Bruton to remove a cornerstone of Catholic school admission polices - the so-called 'baptism barrier' - are at an advanced stage.

So too are moves to ask parents to decide who should run their local Catholic primaries.

The head-on challenge to the foundations of Catholic education comes amid preparations for the visit by Pope Francis in August, with an associated stirring of religious sentiment.

Lifting the 'baptism barrier' requires a change in the law and Mr Bruton expects to be able to make an announcement shortly on how he proposes to do that, a Department of Education spokesperson said.

The matter has been with the Attorney General (AG) for months, but the spokesperson said engagement between the AG's office and the education department "has been positive and is nearing completion".

The minister is expected to face major opposition from Catholic education interests and a legal challenge to his ambitions is almost certain.

The move will raise Church-State tensions in advance of the papal visit and coincides with the referendum on abortion.

The 'baptism barrier' allows Church-run schools to give priority admission to pupils baptised in their faith - for which they have legal protection under the Equal Status Act.

It has become a source of growing controversy as 90pc of primary schools are under Catholic control, although the proportion of the population declaring as Catholic is in sharp decline.

Mr Bruton believes it is unfair preference is given by publicly funded 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 closer.

He has also stated it is unfair parents feel pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to the local school.

A second initiative represents a further attempt to broaden choice for parents and identify Catholic primary schools that may be handed over to a multi-denominational patron.

'Patronage reconfiguration' is a reworking of the divestment process under former education minister Ruairi Quinn, which resulted in only 10 schools changing hands. There are about 2,800 Catholic primary schools countrywide.

The 16 education and training boards (ETBs) have been charged with conducting surveys of parents of pre-school children in one area in their region to gauge the level of support for change.

The surveys will take place this month, but it is not known yet where they will be held or exactly what form they will take.

When they are complete, each ETB will prepare a report outlining the demand for diversity, including a response from the existing patrons as to how this might be accommodated.

Mr Bruton said "supporting the transfer of schools to multi-denominational patrons, in response to the wishes of local families, will be based on cooperation and transparency".

It is less contentious than the baptism barrier move, but it remains to be seen whether it makes more progress than the divestment process.

Irish Independent

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