Tuesday 23 October 2018

Lifting of the baptism barrier shows time is ripe for change

'The Church recognised the writing on the wall and late on Wednesday night it passed quietly through the Dáil as amendment 137 of the School Admissions Bill. It could be, and was, done'. (stock photo)
'The Church recognised the writing on the wall and late on Wednesday night it passed quietly through the Dáil as amendment 137 of the School Admissions Bill. It could be, and was, done'. (stock photo)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

They said it couldn't be done. For years, the word from the Department of Education and its ministers was it was legally impossible to tackle the "baptism barrier" that has allowed primary schools to select pupils on religious grounds.

The Equal Status Act 1998 set out nine grounds where it is illegal to discriminate in the provision of goods and services, accommodation and education.

Religion is one of those grounds but, in a different Ireland of 20 years ago, there was a derogation for education, to allow denominational schools to "protect their ethos". The baptism cert was the mechanism for showing adherence of the faith and routinely featured in the admission rules of Catholic primary schools.

In a rapidly changing Ireland, it led to one of those Irish solutions to an Irish problem: couples who were born Catholic but shunning church marriages in favour of civil and humanist ceremonies and then getting children baptised purely for school entry.

Whatever about Irish parents with Catholic backgrounds, it was more confusing and difficult for many migrants who have streamed into Ireland since 1999: people of all religious colours, and none, who arrived to take up vital roles as nurses, carers and IT specialists, often to be told there was no place for their children in the local school.

Amid a rising clamour for change, the advice was that any attempt to undo that 1998 provision presented a legal conundrum: on the one hand, the State is obliged to protect minority faiths, which run 5pc of schools, and on the other it could not target one religion - in this case the Catholic Church -which controls 90pc of primary schools.

It wasn't only parents who were campaigning. Bodies such as the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) added their voice.

There was growing realisation the problem was not going away and would only get worse. The Department of Education found the will, Education Minister Richard Bruton asked a new Attorney General to look at it afresh, and a few weeks ago a legal formula was produced. The Church recognised the writing on the wall and late on Wednesday night it passed quietly through the Dáil as amendment 137 of the School Admissions Bill. It could be, and was, done.

The problem wouldn't have arisen if the Catholic Church didn't have such a dominant position in education. But structures in place since the 1830s, the era of Catholic Emancipation, have proved hard to dismantle, not least because the Church owns the land on which schools are built.

So the removal of baptism barrier, radical and all as it is, doesn't provide a full solution. It sends out an important message about education and inclusion and will introduce greater equity to admissions rules in the 20pc of primary schools that are oversubscribed. But it doesn't change the fact that nine in 10 primary schools - about 2,800 of 3,200 - are still Catholic in ethos.

Eyes will turn to the latest initiative to have some schools transfer to multi- and non-denominational patron bodies to meet demand, all over the country, for greater diversity.

Former education minister Ruairi Quinn launched this idea a few years ago, but only 10 schools changed hands.

Richard Bruton and his advisers have come up with variation in approach and surveys of parents in an initial 16 areas are under way. Like the lifting of the baptism barrier, the hope is that the time is ripe.

Irish Independent

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