Sunday 17 December 2017

Labour promises to end 'baptism barrier' to school entry if re-elected

Joan Burton: desperate to coax back traditional voters
Joan Burton: desperate to coax back traditional voters
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The Labour Party will promise to end the 'baptism barrier' to school entry if re-elected to the next government.

Tánaiste Joan Burton is desperate to coax back traditional Labour voters with strong social policies in her manifesto. But, with a diminished parliamentary party, she may struggle to convince Fine Gael in any coalition negotiations.

Some within the party feel they have been outplayed by Enda Kenny in recent days on issues like abortion and low pay that would have been seen as big selling points for the Labour manifesto.

The Irish Independent has learned that Labour plans to double the number of multi-denominational schools by 2021.

In a speech last week to young party members, Ms Burton said: "Parents shouldn't feel compelled to baptise their children just to get a school place."

Nine out of 10 primary schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church but efforts to secularise them have frequently caused local conflicts.

Around 100 schools are under multi-denominational patronage but Ms Burton says that figure can be doubled through a range of measures.

There is huge anecdotal evidence of parents baptising their children in order to get them a priority place in their local Catholic school, particularly in Labour's Dublin heartland.

A Labour spokesperson confirmed one measure being worked on is an amendment to the Equal Status Acts which would force schools to take children "regardless of their religion".

Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has been compiling the education element of the party's manifesto over recent months.

"She has been clear in her view that we need to amend the existing exemptions in the Equal Status Act, which have created a situation where in some parts of the country, parents feel compelled to baptise their children against their own personal ethos," a spokesperson said.

"We must provide parents and children with access to their local schools, regardless of their beliefs.

"The Labour Party will be proposing an amendment to the Equal Status Acts, so that priority can only be given to school admission on the basis of religious exemptions, where the school can prove that using such a prioritisation is necessary to preserve their ethos."

The spokesperson added that it would "strike a much better balance, and will make sure that local schools prioritise local children for admission, regardless of their religion, while also allowing for an ongoing protection of the rights of minority religions".

However, the proposal could prove a difficult point if the party is negotiating a programme for government with Fine Gael.

Sources in Mr Kenny's party said they are not moving in a vastly different direction but are travelling at a different pace.

"The policy is towards a multi-denominational school system but it is unlikely there will be a target in our manifesto," said a source.

Yesterday the Irish Independent revealed Fine Gael will make a series of election promises aimed at low-paid workers, who are usually the preserve of the Labour Party.

Irish Independent

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