AFTER more than 40 years of free education, isn't it incredible that we are still playing out the game of education on a pitch skewed by discrimination, class consciousness, income and family background?
There is a belief in the minds of some that they do not have to deal with what they consider the unpleasant business of problem students, Travellers, students with special needs and, generally anyone who might impact on their self-constructed coziness.
Irish education is not played out on a level pitch and a detailed study of schools' admission policies reveals the common thread -- that many of them have devised imaginative ways of setting the slope on the pitch:
This list is not exhaustive.
In some schools the restrictions are innocent and simply exist by custom and practice. In others, however, they are very carefully crafted to enable the school to "cherry pick" its intake. In many towns the length and breadth of the country, this covert form of social apartheid is in operation.
The Department of Education is well aware of this but, like so many problems, refuses to deal with it until, as with the banking crisis, it becomes unmanageable.
Why do I say this? Back in 2007 the department carried out an audit of admission policies with particular reference to assessing the treatment of pupils with special educational needs, Travellers and newcomers who arrived here to settle.
The survey looked at about 50pc of schools in limited geographic areas and, perhaps most significantly of all, did not include any fee-paying schools. Notwithstanding that fundamental flaw, it threw up some astonishing results.
Schools in the vocational and community sector bore an unequal representation of pupils with special needs, and Traveller and newcomer backgrounds in comparison with their secondary counterparts.
Perhaps the most staggering statistic from that report and the one that would leave any reader speechless was the revelation that in one mixed vocational school in the West 55.84pc of the pupils had special educational needs whereas in the same small geographic area two secondary schools had just 2.5pc of pupils with special needs. This is not something that just happens by accident.
The then minister, Mary Hanafin, decided to go into consultation mode and, in a letter to management bodies and other agencies asking them to comment on the audit findings, set the stage for the replies by advising that "the audit did not find evidence of problematic enrolment practice on a system-wide scale".
At the time the department received about 18 replies from parents' bodies, unions, management bodies, the National Education Welfare Board and the Equality Tribunal. The responses reveal a deep-seated and fractious divide across a plethora of fault lines among the various parties.
However, one line was strong and clear: unions and the vocational and community patronage bodies favour more regulation and an end to discrimination whereas the religious patronage representative bodies, quite simply, are not up for change. Why should they be, hasn't the slope run with them for a long time now?
There is no doubt that the nettle of discriminatory enrolment policies and covert means of cherry picking pupils will have to be grasped and grasped quickly as the enrolment season opens because there is now the unavoidable issue that every policy which sets down discriminatory criteria for applicants is unlawful and there are a great many such policies all around the country.
There is a real opportunity for the department to learn from the bitter experience we have had in the banking sector that soft-touch regulation is not good public policy in an area where those with vested interests can take unfair advantage.
Rather than require individuals to vindicate their rights before bodies like the Equality Tribunal, the department must now step up to the plate and manage this proactively.
As we look to what is undoubtedly a future of diminished resources and expenditure in education, it is now time for the State to level the pitch and to draft and implement a set of admission regulations which all state-recognised and state-funded schools will have to abide by or run the risk of having their recognition and funding withdrawn.
Some will read this and say these are side issues that we are now too broke to tackle. To them I respond that these are core issues and, fundamentally, they are part of the reason why we are broke now.
Gearóid Ó Brádaigh is a practising barrister and consultant on school management issues and former CEO of Westmeath VEC