Catholic primary schools to be banned from 'baptism barriers'
Catholic primary schools will be legally banned from using a baptism certificate to choose pupils for entry under historic changes agreed by the Cabinet yesterday.
The momentous move, which will affect nine in 10 of the nation's primary schools, will take effect for pupils starting school in September 2019.
First, it has to pass into law, but there is widespread support in the political system for reform on this front.
However, it is certain to trigger a backlash from the Catholic Church, which has been allowed to discriminate in favour of children baptised in its faith, in the interests of protecting the religious ethos of a school.
But, in the modern era, it leads to parents baptising children solely for school admission. Education Minister Richard Bruton has announced the "baptism barrier" change as part of the wider reform of school admissions.
"It is unfair that a local child of no religion is passed over in favour of a child of religion, living some distance away for access to their local school.
"Parents should not feel pressured to baptise their child to get access to their local school," he said.
Previous ministers for education were advised that it was not legally possible to single out Catholic schools for a change of this nature, but a Department of Education spokesperson said they had "worked extensively with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure the amendments being introduced are constitutionally robust".
All of the country's 2,800 Catholic primary schools will have to rewrite their admissions policies and remove religion as a criterion for entry. However, not all Catholic schools will be materially affected, as most, particularly in rural areas, can accommodate all comers.
But it will have an impact on about 20pc of primary schools - many of them in Dublin and other large urban centres - where there is competition for places.
Schools of minority religions - defined as a religion whose membership is not in excess of 10pc of the population as established by the Census - are exempt from the proposed change.
Minority religions account for about 5pc of schools, and the exemption is to ensure that an individual can find a place in a school that is aligned to their beliefs.
About 5pc of schools are multi- or non-denominational and are covered by the change, although, in practice, they do not give priority to religion.
Mr Bruton is introducing the proposal as one of three amendments to the Educations (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016, which is now at the final stages of the parliamentary process.
The other two amendments provide for Irish medium schools to give priority to Irish-speaking children and give power to the minister to require a school to open a special class for children with special educational needs.
Other key features of the proposed legislation include a ban on school waiting lists and a ban on deposits in non fee-charging schools.
Mr Bruton has also confirmed that, for the first time, there will be a cap, of 25pc, on the number of places schools may reserve for children of past pupils.
He said that while 90pc of primary schools were of a Catholic ethos, over 20pc, and growing, of the parent-age population was non-religious. In addition, recent statistics show that only 51pc of marriages occurred in a Catholic ceremony.
About 5pc of schools are multi- or non-denominational and they are covered by the change, although that would already be practice in this sector.
I am a committed Catholic. Does this change mean that my child will not get into the local Catholic primary school?
It depends on how much competition there is for places, but the days of Catholic schools giving priority to children baptised in their faith will end if this is enacted. The distance you live from the school and whether your child already has a sibling there could be important factors.
I am no longer a practising Catholic, and I was going to baptise my child purely to ensure that she is placed high on the list for entry to the local school, which is Catholic. Should I abandon my plans for baptism?
That is up to you. The minister wants the "baptism barrier" to be gone for 2019 primary school entry, but his proposals have to be enacted in legislation and there is no guarantee when, and even if, that will happen.
I am Church of Ireland. Does this affect my kids?
No. Minority religion schools may continue to prioritise children of their faith.
Will there be an appeals mechanism?
The protection enjoyed by Catholic schools is covered by a derogation to equal status legislation and any appeals against refusal to admit would fall within the remit of the Workplace Relations Commission which deals with that legislation, rather than the Education Act.