Friday 23 August 2019

New minister must act quickly on denominational schools issue

In my opinion by Conor O'Mahony

DR Conor O'Mahony of UCC. Photo: Tomas Tyner.
DR Conor O'Mahony of UCC. Photo: Tomas Tyner.

With the formation of a new government and the appointment of a new Education Minister, it is timely to issue a reminder of some key facts regarding the de facto denominational nature of our primary education system.

Around 95pc of our schools are faith schools, with 90pc under the patronage of the Catholic church. These schools are legally entitled to refuse to admit children from different faiths or none. Even where such children are admitted, there is overwhelming evidence that arrangements for opting out of religion lessons are often ineffective or entirely absent, even though they are required by both the Irish Constitution and international law.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently found that Ireland's international human rights obligations require the Government to take concrete actions to provide opt-outs for children during religion classes; to end the religious discrimination in school admissions; and to provide more multi-denominational schools. Similar recommendations were made by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in 2012.

A recent poll by Behaviour and Attitudes found that 84pc of respondents believed the school system needs to be reformed so that no child is discriminated against because of their religion, while 46pc would not choose Christian schools. One in five said that they knew someone who had had their child baptised for the sole reason of securing admission to a school.

Opponents of reform argue that only a small number of schools actually turn children away based on religion. However, the biggest difficulty caused by the de facto Christian nature of the Irish primary school system is not children being refused admission - it is the exposure of children who have been admitted to doctrinal instruction that is out of line with their beliefs and their parents' preference. Focusing on admissions alone deflects from this fact.

Second, as noted above, there is clear evidence that parents who would otherwise choose not to baptise their child are effectively coerced into doing so by the mere possibility of their child being denied admission to a local school. Thus, religious freedom can be infringed without any child actually being refused admission. Finally, the right to education and the right to religious freedom are individual rights. They do not depend on the existence of critical mass. It is no answer to say that few children are affected; even one single child being denied access to an accessible school on the basis of religion is unacceptable in a pluralist democracy. It is a violation of rights guaranteed by our Constitution and by international human rights law - nothing less.

The recent abolition of Rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, which required that religion "inform and vivify the whole work of the school", was a welcome first step. However, arrangements need to be made to allow children a proper alternative to remaining in class during religion lessons. Time-tabling religion at the beginning or end of the school day so that parents could keep their children out during these lessons would be a simple solution.

The law that allows schools to discriminate on religious grounds in admissions should be reformed so that no child can be excluded from a school due to his or her religion, and so that no family wishing to break ties with the Catholic church is pressured by education law and policy to remain involved. Finally, real progress needs to be made on divestment of Catholic schools in areas where there is a mismatch between supply and demand. Any version of reform is likely to take many years to make a real impact. This is all the more reason to get started immediately.

Dr Conor O'Mahony is senior lecturer in constitutional law, University College Cork, and member of the advisory board to EQUATE, a children's rights organisation advocating for substantial change in how primary and secondary school education is delivered in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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