Monday 20 November 2017

Human rights row erupts over school places for children of former pupils

Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Human Rights Commissioner Emily Logan has taken Education Minister Richard Bruton to task over his plans for new school admission rules.

Ms Logan told the minister that proposed legislation, which Mr Bruton introduced in the Dáil yesterday, gave rise to concerns from an equality and human rights perspective.

Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke
Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) has made a detailed submission to Mr Bruton on the proposed changes.

A key focus of the IHREC is that the 'segregation out' of Traveller, immigrant children and children of people with disabilities through preferential access for others should be prohibited.

Among the specific issues to which the IHREC objects is the move to allow schools to give priority admission to children of past pupils.

Mr Bruton plans to use the new legislation to enshrine an entitlement for schools to reserve about 25pc places for sons or daughters of former pupils.

But the IHREC wants the opposite - a legal ban on the use of a connection with a former student of the school as a basis for preferred entry.

Mr Bruton is also at odds with the IHREC on the thorny issue of the so-called 'baptism barrier'. The minister has kicked this to the Oireachtas Education Committee to tease out legal issues, but the IHREC is pushing for changes, so that no child is given preferential access to a school on religious grounds.

A reform of school admission rules has been on the cards since early in the days of the previous Fine Gael-Labour administration, with the aim of making the process fairer and more transparent.

Many of the main provisions of the bill, which include publication of school enrolment policies, a requirement on schools that are not oversubscribed to admit all applicants, a ban on waiting lists and a ban on deposits, have general support.

But it has been a long and difficult journey, with much opposition coming from Fine Gael members of Cabinet, who were unhappy with the plan to interfere with a school's freedom to favour children of past pupils.

With nine in 10 schools under the control of the Catholic Church, controversy was fuelled by the growing societal demand for an end to the days of parents being forced to baptise their child to get a place in the nearest school.

Ms Logan said the IHREC had made the submission as it believed that the bill could "make a significant contribution towards the stated aims of schools' legislation in relation to equality and the inclusion of all children."

She said the IHREC was calling on the minister and Oireachtas members "to work to ensure that the final Act provides for equality for students in accessing our education system and respects and accommodates diversity".

Mr Bruton yesterday released his letter of reply to Ms Logan, in which he defended the approach taken in the bill, which, he said, "aims to strike the right balance between school autonomy and fairness in the education system".

On the issue of allowing schools to prioritise admissions on faith grounds, he said the matter required time to allow scrutiny and debate in order to ensure any new approach was fair and workable.

Mr Bruton added that he did not want important pragmatic changes contained in the bill to be tied up with contentious issues that could end up in the courts.

Irish Independent

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