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Equal education for all children -- as long as they're Catholic

Over 90 per cent of Irish primary schools are operated by the Catholic Church. Those schools, like all the others, are funded by the Department of Education. A massive increase in inward immigration, by all colours and creeds, coupled with oversubscribed schools has led the Irish education system into a serious quandary.

Catholic parents have first claim to enroll their children in most of the schools in Ireland. So, where oversubscription is widespread, unsurprisingly given the population boom, Catholic children will get preference over non-Catholics. The majority of these 'preferred' children will thus be of Irish descent and white. The preferential treatment of Catholic children is not illegal, nor should it be; but the inevitable result, where the vast majority of primary schools are Catholic, is racial segregation.

The recent case in Balbriggan highlighted the need for regime change in the running of primary schools. Not unlike many other areas, the schools in Balbriggan were oversubscribed. As a result, about 50 children were unable to gain entry to the local primary schools. Those children were black and were not Catholic. This should come as no surprise; given the preferential enrolment policy for children with a baptismal certificate. They have been accommodated in some ad-hoc emergency school.

In the American civil rights era, an African-American third-grader called Linda Brown was forced to walk six blocks to a bus stop every day to catch a bus that took her to a 'black school' that was even further away. There was, however, a local 'white school' that was situated only seven blocks away from her home. The policy in the States at that time was "separate but equal" when it came to race. This case brought the issue to light and the policy was struck down by the US Supreme Court which said, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The educational system over here may not have set out intentional segregation as a policy, but inevitably it flows from the preference given to Catholic children. Every time schools are oversubscribed, this "separate but equal" matter will arise as the rejected pupils are shipped out to some makeshift school.

Mary Hanafin seems to be against segregation, but is in favour of the Church having the right to have a preferential enrolment policy for Catholic children. As long as such a policy exists, and 97 per cent of the primary schools are Catholic-run, it seems to me that segregation cannot be avoided. The Irish Constitution guarantees an education to every child. However, it would seem that the quality of a child's education is largely dependent on having a Catholic baptismal certificate.

On the other hand, long-term solutions have been put forward by the Church this week. They claim to have "no desire" to be sole education providers in this country. They now plan to move towards possibly selling or leasing land to the Department of Education, which will allow them to build non-denominational schools in areas that need them.

Rather than moving towards a completely secular education, primary schools should consider teaching children, not indoctrinating them, about several different faiths, considering this is part of the society they live in. The rest should be left to parents, whether they want their children to follow a particular religion, or not. I myself was educated in a school where we were taught about all religions. 'Moral studies' was integrated into the curriculum to prevent any particular doctrines from having complete dominance, but still educating us to distinguish right from wrong. Maybe this way, integration and diversity of primary schools can be finally achieved.