Thursday 26 April 2018

We gave our schools to Church and never got them back

Rob Sadlier on a system that is failing our children

In 2015, a Dublin couple applied to have their son admitted to nine publicly funded hospitals, to no avail. If he had been baptised, he would have been admitted to any of them, but because he had 'no religion', he was turned away. Religious institutions have a virtual monopoly on hospital patronage in Ireland (96pc), with the Catholic Church dominating (90pc). These publicly funded hospitals are allowed - under 'equality' legislation - to discriminate against children in their admissions policies on religious grounds. Some parents have resorted to having their children baptised to get them into a hospital.

The above is true, save that the word 'hospital' should be replaced by the word 'school'. We wouldn't accept the current regime if it prevailed in our publicly funded hospitals. Why should we accept it in our publicly funded schools?

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has described parents having their children baptised to ease their access to a school as an abuse of the sacrament, but many parents choose the pragmatic option nonetheless. The current system actually incentivises this hypocrisy.

We don't have a real state-school system in this country. We have a Frankenstein-esque system, where the State effectively outsources its constitutional obligation to provide for free primary education to private institutions - 96pc of which are religious. This is an aberration compared to other developed countries. These institutions can then legally discriminate against children on the grounds of religion in their admission policies. Section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal Status Act, 2000 - the 'no room at the inn clause' - allows this. Then, thanks to the 'integrated curriculum', schools can subject children to indoctrination throughout the school day, irrespective of their parents' wishes, rendering their constitutional right to opt out of 'religious instruction' redundant. Indoctrination is not education, yet the two are conflated in the vast majority of our schools.

Evidence points to support for change. Recent polls have shown that the vast majority of those surveyed said that state-funded schools should not have the right to refuse admission on religious grounds and that children should have equal access to school places, irrespective of whether they've been baptised or not.

The health of a society can be judged by how it treats its minorities. This is about fundamental rights - the rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. These are the foundation stones on which a republic is built. These are rights that should be protected from arguments conjured from contrived majoritarianism. Ultimately, it's about equality - equality of access to education in a republic.

Future generations will look back in astonishment at the 'national school system' that existed in 2016. Even Archbishop Martin has said that the status quo is "no longer tenable" and that divestment has been "far too slow".

The Government has no plans to repeal the 'no room at the inn clause' or address the 'integrated curriculum'. The Community National School model, as envisioned by Minister Richard Bruton, should come with a health warning: it provides for the religious segregation of children for periods of faith formation during school hours.

Religious segregation has not worked in Northern Ireland. A report in the UK last year revealed that religious segregation in schools was "socially divisive" and led to "greater misunderstanding and tension". There is no reason to believe it wouldn't have similar consequences here.

Instead of this 'Bride of Frankenstein' model, the 'no room at the inn clause' should be repealed, 'faith formation' should be restricted to a period at the end of the school day, there should be divestment to non and multi-denominational patrons and more non and multi-denominational schools should be built.

Rob Sadlier is a solicitor and member of Education Equality, a group set up to achieve: (i) equal access to school places; (ii) equal respect throughout the school day in our State-funded schools. You can read stories from people who have been affected by religious discrimination in Irish schools here:

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