Tuesday 24 October 2017

Changing to meet the needs of all families

Education Minister Richard Bruton faces obstacles as he tries to tackle the role of religion in admissions to church-run schools.

Sarah Lennon with her partner David Harrold and their son Ethan Lennon-Harrold (4). Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Sarah Lennon with her partner David Harrold and their son Ethan Lennon-Harrold (4). Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Some observers of our school admission system argue that the "baptism barrier" is a problem affecting only a small number of parents. For Sarah Lennon, it is very real.

Ms Lennon and her husband have applied to 20 primary schools for their son who starts in Junior Infants in September.

There are three state-funded primary schools near her home in the south Dublin suburb of Shankill - two Catholic and one Church of Ireland - but Ms Lennon says he will not be admitted to any of these schools, because he is unbaptised.

Ms Lennon, who is chairwoman of the campaign group Education Equality, has applied to a variety of schools including Catholic, gaelscoileanna and Educate Together.

"We have received some offers from outside our area, but the schools are too far away, and we would either have to move house or work fewer hours if we had to drive that far."

Education Minister Richard Bruton has his work cut out as he tries to adapt a primary system, where 95pc of schools are under the control of churches, (90pc Catholic) but tens of thousands of children come from non-religious families.

The minister suggested that no politician, public servant or school manager would create the system we have now if they were starting from scratch.

When considering the future direction of the faith-based education system, one is reminded of the joke about a tourist asking directions and being told: "Well, I wouldn't start from here."

As the minister put it: "It is something we have inherited, and reflects a very different era in Ireland, and change is needed to meet the needs of today's families."

The minister has proposed four options to control how religious schools admit pupils:

* A catchment area approach, banning religious schools from giving preference to children of their own religion who live outside the catchment area ahead of non-religious children who live inside the catchment;

* A 'nearest school rule', allowing religious schools to give preference to a religious child only where it is that child's nearest school;

* A quota system, which would allow a religious school keep a certain number of places for children of that religion;

* An outright ban on schools using religion for admissions. Church schools might be allowed to require parents to indicate respect for the ethos of the school.

From religious traditionalists to secular parents, none of the lobby groups involved in education are likely to be entirely happy with these options.

The last option is, perhaps, the simplest from an administrative point of view, although legally it may be the most fraught, while also still requiring a "buy in" by parents.

"On the face of it, it looks fine, but the requirement to sign something saying they respect the ethos of the school is a step too far," says Ms Lennon.

"If you come from an LGBT family, a divorced family or you're a single mother, you would have to sign something respecting the Catholic ethos, knowing that ethos doesn't respect your family."

The last option is likely to be bitterly opposed by schools run by minority faiths, including the Church of Ireland.

The minister has already acknowledged it would have a severe impact on the capacity of these groups to run their schools and maintain their ethos in any real sense.

The Catholic Church has not yet expressed a preference for one of the Bruton options, but Archbishop Eamon Martin recently indicated that Catholic children in a parish could be given priority, and then children from the local area. That would favour the use of catchment areas to select children where a school is oversubscribed.

While catchment areas might help churches to maintain their ethos in a school and make sense for transport purposes, there are some notable disadvantages.

There would still be an element of religious discrimination in admissions, and the mapping of the catchment could be complex and controversial.

It would put parents who want to place their children in a school that is convenient to where they work at a disadvantage.

Representatives of Catholic schools argue that the real problem is not one of religion, but the shortage of school places generally in a number of areas.

Seamus Mulconry, general secretary of Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, says: "This is an issue of over-subscription that occurs mainly in parts of the greater Dublin area and the commuter belt.

"There are now choke points in certain area of Dublin. If a local Catholic school is oversubscribed, then you tend to find that other schools in the area are oversubscribed as well."

This is borne out by figures from Ms Lennon. She says that close to her area, the Dalkey School Project National School has a waiting list of 300.

Mr Mulconry says children applying to Catholic schools are denied admission because they do not have baptism certs only in a tiny number of cases.

"If they have places, Catholic schools take everybody. Schools will often ask for the baptism cert, but it is not because of enrolment; it is to make sure that when a child is doing Holy Communion, they have the papers for it."

While the baptism barrier causes genuine anguish, there are also a lot of areas where Catholic schools have a shortage of pupils.

The cases where there are too few places for every applicant tend to be in highly successful schools in middle class areas, according to Mr Mulconry.

"There are a lot of working class areas where over-subscription is the least of their worries."

Mr Mulconry says the intake of pupils to Catholic schools is the most diverse in the country.

Solving the conundrum of the role of religion in admissions is just one aspect of the controversial issue of religion in schools.

Another is the sheer number of schools under the control of the Catholic Church.

Moves to transfer some church schools to multi-denominational or non-denominational patrons have proceeded at a snail's pace since an initiative on divestment was announced in 2012.

This week, Mr Bruton announced a plan to lease schools from the Catholic Church in areas where there is a strong demand for multi-denominational schools. The focus will be on areas of stable population, where there are enough school places, but a lack of diversity. In areas of population growth, diversity is being addressed by the opening of new schools under multi- or non-denominational patronage.

How to have your say on the baptism barrier

Parents, teachers, the general public, as well as organisations that stand to be impacted by the changes, are invited to submit their views on the best way of dealing with the so-called "baptism barrier".

Education Minister Richard Bruton has opened a four-week public consultation process, which will run until February 20. A consultation document, 'The role of denominational religion in the school admissions process and possible approaches for making changes', is available on the website of the Department of Education and Skills.

Submissions should follow the format set out in the document, and should be forwarded to: admissions&religion@education.gov.ie.

As well as offering their views, those participating in the consultation are also asked to identify which of the four possible approaches set out in the proposals they would prefer to see implemented.

Mr Bruton's intention is to make changes, in the first instance, in respect of the primary school system, as this is the part of the system where change is deemed to be most urgent. Some 95pc of primary schools are under religious patronage, compared with 45pc of post-primary schools.

The minister says he wants to have legislative proposals to give effect to the preferred option ready by the summer.

Irish Independent

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