Tuesday 25 June 2019

No more talking - scrapping schools baptism barrier is long overdue

Nikki Murphy and Clem Brennan with their children Reuben (5) and Roscoe (2). Ms Murphy was featured in ‘The New York Times’ last year, when Reuben, then four, was turned away from nine schools in south Dublin because he was not baptised
Nikki Murphy and Clem Brennan with their children Reuben (5) and Roscoe (2). Ms Murphy was featured in ‘The New York Times’ last year, when Reuben, then four, was turned away from nine schools in south Dublin because he was not baptised
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Who knows why Education Minister Richard Bruton has belatedly decided to do something about the baptism barrier, which excludes children from schools on the basis of their religion?

Maybe he was embarrassed into action after a number of international newspapers recently ran front-page stories depicting the plight of Irish parents whose children were rejected by multiple schools.

Last year, for example, 'The New York Times' prominently covered the case of Dublin woman Nikki Murphy and her four-year-old son Reuben after he was turned away from nine schools in south Dublin because he was not baptised.

With the Government trying to sell Ireland to international investors as a welcoming country where diversity is respected, it may have decided that this sort of negative press coverage was damaging to those efforts.

Or perhaps the minister finally came to accept that the glacial pace of divestment of Catholic schools requires immediate changes to the enrolment policies of those schools - at least until that process has been completed.

If he has, it has been something of a Damascene conversion for Mr Bruton and the Fine Gael party.

Speaking in the Dáil last year, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was still insistent that an "easy way" to resolve the issue was to build more schools.

However, as those grappling with the homelessness crisis can attest to, building things is not this Government's forte.

While the State has committed to increasing the number of non-denominational or multi-denominational schools to 400 by 2030, Fianna Fáil TD Thomas Byrne revealed in the Dáil last month that just four of those schools have been delivered so far - a pathetic 1pc.

At this rate, those toddlers currently being denied entry to schools around the country will be parents themselves before the number of multi- and non-denominational schools has significantly increased.

Alternatively, it could be that the minister was chastened by recent criticism from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which found Ireland was breaching its international human rights obligations by enshrining religious discrimination in law when it came to the admission policies of schools. That law - section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 - means that schools with a religious patronage, 96pc of primary schools in Ireland, can admit a child of that denomination in preference to others.

Since more than 90pc of primary schools in Ireland are Catholic, and there are a mere 80 multi-denominational schools located in just 19 counties, this means that children from minority faiths and none are routinely denied entry to their local schools because they lack a baptismal cert.

Given the increasingly secular nature of Irish society, with the number of Catholic marriages falling from 90.7pc in 1995 to 56.7pc in 2015, this situation is clearly untenable.

At last, the Government seems to have accepted this reality. The only shame is that Fine Gael ministers didn't act way back in 2011, when they stymied former education minister Ruairi Quinn's attempts to introduce moderate reforms in this area.

However, when it comes to the baptism barrier, the party may finally be willing to concede that changing the admissions policy of schools may be a faster way to deal with an obvious iniquity than building hundreds of schools.

Formerly, Mr Bruton and his colleagues had always insisted the Constitution precluded them from amending an unjust law. However, this excuse was blown out of the water last year when three constitutional law experts published advice in which they said there was "no constitutional right to unconditional public funding for private or denominational schools" and no bar to the State imposing "reasonable conditions on the provision of public funding".

This is particularly the case when parents feel compelled to baptise their children into a religion they don't espouse purely to ensure their children are not discriminated against when it comes to school admission.

A 2015 Ipsos poll, which found that 93pc of parents with young children had opted to baptise them - in circumstances where just 56.7pc of marriages that year were Catholic - would certainly suggest that something doesn't add up.

The fact that Fine Gael has now accepted that this State-sponsored discrimination is something that needs to be tackled may be welcome, but its insistence that the decision needs to be outsourced for public consultation is not.

Mr Bruton has outlined four approaches to dealing with the issue - a 'catchment area' approach; a 'nearest school' approach; a quota system; and an outright ban on religion being used in the admissions process. However, given this is an issue that has been the subject of public debate since at least 1996, when the Constitutional Review Group reported on the matter, the minister should be able to make up his mind without another talking shop being set up.

The fairest and easiest thing to do would be to simply amend the Equal Status Act so that religion can no longer be used to deny children access to their local school - a measure that could be introduced tomorrow if the political will was there.

Amending enrolment policies in such a way does nothing to dilute the religious ethos of a school; it simply means that discriminatory admissions policies cannot be pursued.

In a country where more than nine out of 10 primary schools are currently Catholic, it can hardly be argued that making this important change would disproportionately disadvantage Catholic children.

Ultimately, when the numbers of multi- and non-denominational schools have increased, parents will no longer feel compelled to send their children to religious schools.

Until that happens, the swift removal of the baptism barrier is an important step to ensure that children are not discriminated against on religious grounds when trying to access publicly funded education.

Irish Independent

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