School baptism rule to be scrapped
Minister to tackle education 'baptism barrier'
Education Minister Richard Bruton is to tackle the "baptism barrier" that gives Catholic children priority admission to nine out 10 of the country's primary schools.
Bowing to growing pressure for change, he says he plans to limit or remove the role that religion can play in the school admission process. It is the first such move by any Irish government.
Mr Bruton says the system is 'unfair' and does not reflect the reality of modern Irish society, where the number of Catholic-controlled schools is now well ahead of the proportion of families who are practising Catholics.
A Catholic-first admissions policy means many children cannot get into their nearest school because they are not baptised - and many parents are baptising children purely for school-entry purposes.
According to a new survey by Equate - which has been campaigning for reforms to the system to reflect social and cultural change in Ireland - 24pc of parents of school-age children would not have baptised their child if they didn't need to in order to gain entry into their school.
"It is unfair that preference is given by publicly funded religious schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who live close to the school," Mr Bruton said.
The minister will set out his plans today at a seminar organised by Equate, when he will put forward four options for discussion:
Catchment area approach, prohibiting 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.
'Nearest school rule', allowing religious schools to give preference to a religious child only where it is that child's nearest school of that particular religion.
Quota system, which would allow a religious school to give preference to children of its own religion in respect of only a certain proportion of places, meaning the remaining places would be allocated based on other admissions criteria, such as proximity to the school or a lottery.
Outright prohibition on religious schools using religion as a factor in admissions, meaning all places would be allocated based on other factors.
Adoption of any option faces considerable obstacles because of the legal entitlement enjoyed by denominational schools in relation to protecting their religious ethos - and admissions polices are a vehicle for this.
But Mr Bruton who, soon after taking office last year, asked officials in the Department of Education to explore options, clearly believes any difficulties are surmountable.
He is inviting the views of all interested parties, and hopes to have proposals to table when a Labour Party bill in this area comes to committee stage in June.
Mr Bruton acknowledges a number of potential difficulties in the road ahead, including avoiding possible breaches of the Constitution, traditionally put forward as the reason why the State could not introduce changes in the 'Catholic-first' rule.
He also says he is conscious of the need to protect schools of minority religions, such as Protestant, Jewish and Islamic, from the unintended consequences of any change.
He insists reform must not lead to 'postcode lotteries', such as other countries have experienced, resulting in pronounced divergence in quality of schools in more advantaged, compared to less advantaged, areas.
Overall, 96pc of primary schools are under the patronage of Christian religious organisations. In particular, 90pc are of Catholic ethos.
But Mr Bruton says Ireland must move on from the system of patronage/ ethos "that we have inherited and reflects a very different era in Ireland; change is needed to meet the needs of today's families".
"Over one-third of couples who are getting married are choosing to do so in a non-religious ceremony, and all the evidence points to a population in which very significantly fewer than 90pc of young families are religious," he added.