Education change timeframe unclear

It is unclear when parents will see changes to the rules that allow links between religion and school enrolment, despite Education Minister Richard Bruton’s plans to deal with the issue.

Opposition parties have already criticised the minister for not dealing with the baptism barrier issue in law that is already going through the Oireachtas.

He said yesterday that linking the complex issues involved with religion and school enrolment risked causing substantial delays to the School Admissions Bill. He published the bill last summer and it is due to go to committee stage soon.

However, the Oireachtas education committee has already had hearings with groups explicitly interested in the religious dimensions, and plans to meet religious education bodies shortly to hear their views.

Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne said the minister enjoys talking about the subject, but has failed to take any action to implement change.

“The only party that doesn’t have a clear policy on this issue is Fine Gael.

“Instead of setting up a duplicate process to that being completed by the committee, the minister would be far better off submitting Fine Gael’s policy to the committee and letting it get on with its work,” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by Green Party counterpart Catherine Martin, who warned that any public consultation must not be an attempt to kick the issue to touch.

“We would question why this issue can’t be addressed in the current bill that is going through the Oireachtas. I have raised this on the education committee, and fully intend to make amendments to that affect when we deal with the School Admissions Bill,” she said.

The religion issue was not covered in Mr Bruton’s bill, but any change to remove the baptism barrier would be in the form of an amendment to equal status law. It currently allows schools exemption from grounds of discrimination if priority is given to a child of the school’s faith over a child who is not.

Asked about the timeframe, the minister could only say yesterday that he expects to have the issue sorted out in the lifetime of the Government’s ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement with Fianna Fáil.

“My view is that we have a confidence and supply agreement for three years, and we will comfortably deal with this issue within that period,” said Mr Bruton. That arrangement between the Government parties and Fianna Fáil in opposition continues until the end of next year.

Mr Bruton has indicated that Oireachtas time reserved in June for a related Labour Party private members’ bill would be the appropriate time to introduce the necessary legislation.

Labour education spokeswoman Joan Burton accused the Government and Fianna Fáil of colluding to long-finger the reforms that are needed, as it is over six months since her bill was sent to the education committee for consultation.

“It is clear that while outlining the issues, and trying to ensure he stays on the right side of public opinion, the minister has no immediate plans to address the baptism barrier,” she said.

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