Sunday 21 January 2018

Why do non-believers have to christen their children in order to get the best education?

There's growing anger that the 'Catholic First' rule for entry to state-funded schools was endorsed this week by Minister Richard Bruton. Can it be right that tax-paying non-believers have to christen their children in order to get the best education?

Lucy Halpin Rigby and Joe Rigby with their 18 month old twins Archie and Charlie at their home in Kimmage, where they have struggled to find school places for their boys. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Lucy Halpin Rigby and Joe Rigby with their 18 month old twins Archie and Charlie at their home in Kimmage, where they have struggled to find school places for their boys. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

To a growing number of Irish parents, it is an objectionable and archaic throwback to a time when the Catholic Church was the dominant force in Ireland. In some areas, they can't get their children into a state-funded school because they are not baptised. Others object that they are paying their taxes and the only choice for many miles around is a Catholic school.

Richard Bruton is just the latest in a long line of Education ministers who has to grapple with this problem.

How does he administer a state-funded education system where 90pc of the schools are Catholic, but less than 30pc of the population attends Mass regularly? Weekly Mass attendance in Dublin was recently estimated at 20pc to 22pc in a report for the Dublin Association of Priests.

Even the Catholic Church itself has been trying to give up control of some of its schools in recognition of a more diverse population and its own diminishing resources - but change is happening at a snail's pace.

Only 2pc of primary schools are multi-denominational, despite soaring demand and long waiting lists for Educate Together schools in many areas. Very few primary schools have been handed over from church control to multi-denominational bodies.

Sometimes, it is a view from outside that causes heads to turn and for parents to question the current system. Earlier this year, the front page of the New York Times highlighted the case of a young Dublin boy who was turned away by nine local schools because he was not baptised.

More of these cases are coming to light, and a new generation of parents are determined to campaign for greater access.

A recent Behaviour and Attitudes survey for the campaign group Equate found that 84pc of people believe that Irish education should be reformed to prevent the exclusion of a child due to their religion or lack of a religion.

Lucy Halpin came home to Dublin from London with her English husband Joe to start a family, and the couple have been shocked by the difficulties they have faced in getting their twin boys Archie and Charlie into a school.

"Our employer, our doctor and our landlord can't use religion as an excuse to exclude us but our local school can," says Lucy.

The Dublin mother says all the schools in her area of Kimmage in South Dublin are Catholic, and because her twins are not baptised they are pushed to the bottom of the list.

"My taxes are paying for these schools, but not one of them will accept my boys as local children first."

The irate parent says she finds it hard to explain to her English husband that this is the situation.

"It makes Ireland seem like it is still in the dark ages," she says.

With schools in areas of high -demand enforcing a Catholic-first policy, and even asking for baptism certs in some cases, it is hardly surprising that many parents are going through the motions of getting their children baptised.

According to the recent Behaviour and Attitudes survey, one in five Irish people said they knew of someone who had baptised their child to help ensure access to a local school.

For these parents, it is a hollow ritual, merely undertaken to meet a bureaucratic requirement.

Lucy is keen to emphasise that she is not anti-religious and wants to respect the faith of her parents.

She says she would be extremely reluctant to baptise her children just to get them into a school.

"There's something fundamentally wrong with the system when parents who don't believe, didn't get married in church and don't go to Mass get children baptised purely for school access."

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin seems to agree that these quickie christenings should be discouraged. He has said that to baptise a child so they can attend a particular school was an "abuse" of the sacrament.

However, he has defended Catholic schools' right to prioritise children who are baptised.

"In Catholic schools, they obviously prioritise people who are Catholic," he has argued.

Dr Martin has also suggested in interviews that the real problem was "a lack of places", which was also an issue for the Educate Together schools in some areas.

Parents have a right to withdraw their children from religion classes in Catholic schools, but this presents practical problems.

Irish primary school pupils spend twice as much time on religion than the international average. Religious education is allocated two-and-a-half hours per week, while History, Geography and Science combined are allocated three hours.

The segregation of children during religion class has been an issue for many parents.

Dublin parent Devin Doyle sent his daughter to a Catholic school in North Dublin.

"They worked really hard to make our daughter feel accepted and included. They've treated us with kindness and accommodation, as best they can.

"But every day, for half an hour, one eighth of the day's teaching time, our daughter went and sat by herself while the teacher gave the other kids religious education.

"My daughter was made to feel different, purely because of her religion."

In the first big decision of his Education ministry, Richard Bruton has indicated that the 'baptism barrier' to state schools will remain.

Under the Equal Status Act 2000, schools with a religious patronage - 96pc of primary schools - can admit a child of that denomination in preference to others.

While the decision will be a blow to parents in the minority of areas where children are excluded on the grounds of religion, Bruton has also signalled that he wants there to be 400 multi-denominational primary schools over the next 15 years.

Until now, the multi-denominational sector has been dominated by Educate Together. The patron body has a network of 77 primary schools and four second-level schools.

Many of the schools have been opened after campaigns driven by local parents, and this has given them a certain dynamism.

Educate Together schools have also been criticised because their 'first come, first served' policies can make it more difficult for immigrant children in some areas to be enrolled.

As a result of these criticisms, enrolment policies have been changed in some of the schools.

While Educate Together is likely to continue to be the fastest-growing sector in the country, the Education Minister this week indicated that he favours another type of multi-denominational school - the community national school.

There are already a small number of these schools in the country, run by local Education and Training Boards (formerly Vocational Education Committees).

At these schools, all children are taught a common multi-belief education programme known as "Goodness Me - Goodness You".

For three or four weeks of the year, inside school hours, the children are taught, according to their own belief system, whether it is Catholic, Church of Ireland, Muslim, or Atheist. At this time, Catholic children might be prepared for Communion or Confirmation. Since Citywest and Saggart Community National School opened in West County Dublin four years ago, it has attracted pupils of 31 nationalities, and half the school population is Irish.

"We don't discriminate on any religious grounds in our enrolment policy at Community National Schools. The only information we have is the child's name address and telephone number and date of birth. We don't ask for religion or nationality. We give priority to siblings and people in our catchment area, and after that it is done by age with the oldest children getting places first," says Seamus Conboy, principal of the school.

In the religious programme, the principal tries to get families involved with faith formation.

"Say if we were discussing a particular theme for the week, like peace, the teacher will ask the parents to talk to the children about the theme from their religious or belief perspective."

While community national schools are a definite step towards multi-denominational education, their growth has been slow and the public is not well informed about them.

While the practice differs according to the school, Community National schools can segregate children at certain times for religious instruction during school hours. This has made them more acceptable to the Catholic Church as a compromise solution to the problem of how faith is handled in schools, but it may put off some parents.

The Catholic Church has suggested that it could play a joint role with Education and Training Boards in running the schools.

Educate Together this week warned that this would be problematic because the whole rationale for setting up Community National Schools was to address the widespread demand for accessible alternatives to church-run schools.

Around 50pc of the pupils in Educate Together schools are Catholic, but faith formation for these pupils and those of other religions takes place outside school hours.

Luke O'Shaughnessy, a spokesman for Educate Together, says the Community National Schools favoured by Bruton are configured along the lines of Catholic schools.

"They are not in any way different. They have faith formation within the school day and they segregate children along religious lines."

The minister faces some tough choices as he tries to develop a model of education that suits Catholic parents, those of other faiths, and the growing number of parents who are not religious.

Even if he creates more choice with the opening of hundreds of multi-denominational schools, in many areas there is just one school.

Unless a minister comes along who is prepared to take radical action, that school is likely to be Catholic for the foreseeable future - and in a more secular society, more parents are likely to be dissatisfied.​

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