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Admissions bar based on religion is unfair - but we must respect views of our faith-based schools too

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Religious schools are permitted to give priority in admissions to children of their own religion, no matter where they live (Stock image)

Religious schools are permitted to give priority in admissions to children of their own religion, no matter where they live (Stock image)

Getty Images

Religious schools are permitted to give priority in admissions to children of their own religion, no matter where they live (Stock image)

Eva Panicker is an Irish citizen, and is a Hindu. In October 2015, when she was four years old, she was refused admission to her local primary school.

Despite the fact that she lived right beside this school, which was an oversubscribed Catholic school, it was within its rights under current law to give priority in admissions to Catholic children, even if they lived some distance away.

I believe that this situation is unfair and needs to be addressed.

I met Eva's father, Roopesh, yesterday and he told me about the difficult situation that his family encountered in 2015. Similar situations are experienced by families across the country every year, and I have met many of them - families of different religions like the Panickers, or families who are of no religion at all.

Religious schools are permitted to give priority in admissions to children of their own religion, no matter where they live.

Even though only 20pc of schools are oversubscribed in any given year, when parents are making decisions about whether they will baptise their children they may not know where that child will go to school or whether that school will be oversubscribed.

Therefore it is entirely understandable that some parents choose to baptise their children, where otherwise they might not do so, in order to give themselves certainty about getting their children into the school.

I believe this situation is unfair and needs to be addressed.

In 2016, 66pc of Irish couples who got married did so in a religious ceremony. However, 96pc of Irish primary schools are run by religious organisations.

There are many elements of the changes that we need. One crucial part of my plan is to deliver more multi-denominational and non-denominational schools. We have set a target in the Programme for Government to deliver 400 such schools in the coming years, and I will shortly outline more details of how we are going to deliver on this.

However, one element is to address the role that religion can play in school admissions. Some months ago I asked my department to work up possible approaches for how we could change the law to address these unfairnesses. Yesterday, I announced possible approaches which I believe could be implemented to address these issues, and asked people for their views.

The first three options limit, in different ways, the role that religion can play in the primary school admissions process - based on geography or on a percentage quota. The final option would remove the right to use religion in the admissions process whatsoever.

My intention is to take about 10-12 weeks to listen to those views before deciding on the best way to progress, and then push ahead with that as quickly as possible.

As well as hearing the story of Roopesh and Eva Panicker, I also heard a story yesterday about Saint Peter's Church of Ireland primary school in Drogheda. It was founded in 1896. A reasonably small school, with four teachers, it aims to cater for members of the Church of Ireland across a wide area of the North East - 391 square miles - who wish their children to be educated in a primary school with this Protestant ethos.

Adrian Oughton of the Church of Ireland Board of Education, who I also met yesterday, explained to me his fears that if changes were brought in which meant Saint Peter's was not permitted to use religion in its admissions policies then it would become a Church of Ireland school in name only.

The school can't possibly maintain its ethos if it doesn't have any pupils of that ethos, he explained. And given that the Church of Ireland accounts for less than 3pc of the population, this would almost certainly be the result.

I believe that the desire of parents who are religious - whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or any other religion - to have their children educated in a school of the same religious ethos is welcome and should be respected and supported.

As a tolerant, inclusive country, I believe we have a particular duty to members of minority religions.

Roopesh explained to me yesterday that he does not want his daughter to go to a Hindu school, he wants her to go to her local school. However, many members of minority religions undoubtedly do want their children to go to schools of that ethos, as reflected in examples like Saint Peter's in Drogheda, and I believe that must also be respected.

People like Roopesh and Adrian have very genuinely held - and in some cases very strongly held - views about the role that religion should play in our education system.

We heard some of these views expressed in different ways over the course of the day yesterday in the media.

A large part of the job of politics and politicians is to solve complex problems that affect citizens.

This is undoubtedly one such problem, how to reconcile the wishes of parents like Roopesh with the wishes of the Church of Ireland families who live 10 miles from Drogheda and wish their children to be educated in a school with a Protestant ethos.

My general approach, where possible, is to live and let live, and to strive for the greatest good of the greatest number. My job is to steer a middle course between the strongly held views on both sides of this argument.

I urge anyone with views on this, or anyone who stands to be impacted, to take part in the consultation process, so that we can design and quickly implement solutions which achieve that aim.

Richard Bruton is the Education Minister

Irish Independent