Tuesday 12 December 2017

Bruton still needs legal approval for baptism barrier ban

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

Kevin Doyle

Education Minister Richard Bruton has yet to get legal advice on plans to exclude only Catholic schools from giving preference to pupils from their own faith.

The latest attempt to end the so-called 'baptism barrier' has met with major resistance from all sides of the political divide except Mr Bruton's Fine Gael party.

Fianna Fáil has indicated it will not support the proposal to allow minority religions to continue to discriminate on the grounds of faith. The party's education spokesman Thomas Byrne said the plan showed the minister hadn't put much thought into the issue.

Mr Bruton has indicated Catholic schools, which make up 90pc of schools nationwide, will have to accept all pupils regardless or religion - but more leeway will be allowed for minority religions.

Facilities under the patronage of the Church of Ireland and other religions will be allowed to factor ethos into their admission policies.

The controversial move comes after intense lobbying from Fine Gael ministers and backbenchers who warned the minister an outright ban on the baptism barrier could have unintended consequences for protestant schools.

Fine Gael TD for Dublin-Rathdown Josepha Madigan said the minister's plan acknowledged that "minority faith schools need protection".

"The approach chosen by Minister Bruton, I believe, achieves the necessary balance on this issue," she said.

Nine of 10 schools are under the ethos of the Catholic Church, whereas just 191 (6pc) are run by other religious organisations.

However, the Department of Education accepts that significant work will have to be done before any policy changes are made.

Fianna Fáil claims Mr Bruton has failed to carry out even the most basic of constitutionality checks. "Fianna Fáil is committed to reforming the procedures governing school admissions with a particular focus on the ending of the 'baptism barrier'," Mr Byrne said.

"We favour the introduction of a new set of selection criteria for over-subscribed schools, based on locality and catchment area."

"The proposals we have put forward also respect minority faith schools by ensuring that they are able to give admissions to children of their own denominational background, but only in their own catchment area."

The Irish Independent understands Mr Bruton considered the 'catchment area' but his officials pointed to "significant problems".

There is no centrally-administered system of catchment areas governing schools.

Meanwhile, Mr Bruton has given in to a Fianna Fáil demand for more access for students requiring special needs classes. The opposition party threatened not to back the Schools Admissions Bill unless the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) was given the power to force schools to open special classes where they are required. "Currently, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other special needs are being denied access to schools right across the country due to the absence of special classes," Mr Byrne said.

"The problem is particularly acute at second level and we have known for some time now that additional special classes are needed to ensure that children with special needs can be educated in a mainstream school as is their right."

Irish Independent

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