Saturday 24 February 2018

A minority of schools look for baptism certs but it's still an own goal by Church

John Walshe on a historical hangover but how reform comes dropping slow

Minister Richard Bruton.
Minister Richard Bruton.

The Catholic Church is seriously out of step with public opinion on the issue of non-baptised children attending its primary schools but has only itself to blame for ending up on the back foot trying to justify its position.

Both The New York Times and The Guardian Weekly recently carried embarrassing front-page stories about children being refused school places in this country because they were unbaptised.

This 'baptism barrier' is portrayed as another battle against secularism fought by a church which has already lost the war on divorce, abortion and gay rights.

The fact that relatively few schools look for baptism certs and that most Catholic schools welcome non-Catholics are overlooked in a heated debate about rights and responsibilities. One in five people polled by Behaviour and Attitudes said they knew someone who had their child baptised for the sole reason of securing admission to school.

It could all have been so different.

A few years ago, people were prepared to engage in a reasoned debate about a historical hangover from a time when Ireland was a more homogeneous society and few voices were raised about the Church's near monopoly control of primary schools.

Now there is talk of street protests while moderate voices are in danger of being drowned out in the clamour for the Government to 'do something'. Exactly what is debatable, as the new Education Minister Richard Bruton - who won't challenge the baptism barrier head on - is finding out.

In 2011, the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage was Minister Ruairi Quinn's Big Idea to get schools to reflect Ireland's rapidly changing society. It suggested that where there was an established demand for an alternative, then one of the existing Church schools be transferred to a different patron. Given that there were fewer than 100 multi-denominational schools and 3,000 Catholic schools, the proposal made sense.

It's hard to understand why the Church didn't read it the same way and run with the Forum's recommendations. All anybody had to do was look at the census figures to see how the ownership of schools had not kept pace with societal changes.

In the 1961 census so few people declared themselves as of "no religion" - only 1,107 - that they were literally a footnote in the returns from the Central Statistics Office (CSO). Half a century later, that figure had jumped to a quarter of a million, with a further 70,000 in the "non-stated" category. It's safe to predict a big rise in the next CSO returns.

Some Church leaders wanted to reform but were unable to carry the day. Had a few dozen schools been divested with the prospect of a few hundred more to follow, the Church would now be praised instead of facing widespread criticism. This would have been seen as a generous response which would, incidentally, have left the Church with a majority of primary schools for the foreseeable future.

To date, only eight schools have fully or partially divested and the impatience of Quinn's successor, Jan O'Sullivan, was understandable. She proposed amending the Equal Status Act so that local schools would be required to prioritise local children, no matter what their religion. Introducing such draft legislation would have raised constitutional issues. It would also have alarmed many in Fine Gael who - despite other education rows over issues such as the future of fee-paying schools - were happy to go along with the divestment programme.

Minister Bruton is not keen to go down that legal route but instead will try to secure more choice for parents elsewhere.

Apart from encouraging divestment, he favours co-patronage between the Church and Education and Training Boards (formerly VECs) in Community National Schools (CNS). There are 11 CNS at present with supporters and detractors of the provision of religious instruction which separates pupils along belief lines.

More CNS will follow, as will more Educate Together schools. But don't hold your breath for rapid transformation. We are still decades away from offering real choice to most parents. Reform of the education system, like Yeats's peace, comes dropping slow.

John Walshe was special adviser to Minister Ruairi Quinn

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