Legislation to end ’baptism barrier’ welcome but key structural issue in education not addressed

    Minister Bruton set out that his preference is to remove the capacity for state-funded denominational primary schools, where they are oversubscribed, to use religion as a criteria in admissions process except, in three scenarios:

  • where it would not otherwise be possible to maintain the ethos of the school;
  • where the school is established by a minority religion, in order to ensure that students of that religion can find a school place in a school of that ethos;
  • where the school is established by a minority religion, in order to admit a student of that religion who resides in a community consistently served by that school.

Update 8.30pm: The Educate Together movement has tonight welcomed the announcement the government will bring in legislation to end the so-called ‘baptism barrier’ that allows Catholic primary schools turn away non-Catholic children for enrolment

Educate Together CEO Paul Rowe said every child should be able to attend their local school but, crucially, their local school should treat all children with equal respect both at the school gates and in the classroom, regardless of religious, social or cultural background.

He went on: "It is Educate Together’s position that simply eliminating the exemption used by religious-run schools to discriminate against non-baptised children in their enrolment policies will not resolve the fundamental structural issue in Irish education."

In a statement Educate Together went on to suggest that a national network of approximately 300 Educate Together national schools, and an equivalent number of second-level schools is now needed and called on the Government, the Department and our education partners to work to provide real school choice for all families in Ireland.

They said while they welcome that the ‘baptism barrier’ is to fall the lack of school choice for all families in Ireland remains the fundamental problem.

The Church of Ireland General Synod Board of Education (RI) has also  welcomed the recognition by Minister Bruton of specific concerns raised by minority faiths on the impact of new measures on minority faith schools.

They say that they are looking forward "to the detail of the proposals and to engaging with the Minister and his officials in relation to the measures and proposed legislative changes".

Earlier: The government will bring in legislation to end the so-called ‘baptism barrier’ that allows Catholic primary schools turn away non-Catholic children for enrolment, Education Minister Richard Bruton has told TDs, writes Niall Murray.

Although the timeline for its introduction or when it might take effect is unclear, it is understood the controversial move will not require a referendum.

Mr Bruton has taken legal advice on his proposals, following consultations since January on a range of options to deal with the use of religion as a consideration in deciding primary school admissions.

He told the Oireachtas Select Education Committee of his plans to deal with the issue by way of legislation. It would amend equality law provisions that allow religious schools to give preference to children of their own faith in order to protect their ethos.

However, he also said there will be exceptions within his legislation to ensure children of Church of Ireland or other minority faiths can find a place in a school of that ethos. This is intended to allay concerns that had been expressed that Protestant or other schools could be forced to turn away pupils of their faith, often have to travel longer distances.

The legal authority of over-subscribed Catholic primary schools to give preference to children of their own faith has earned Irish governments persistent criticisms from national and international human rights organisations. The efforts of previous education minister Ruairi Quinn to tackle issues around pluralism in primary education did not go as far as tackling the baptism barrier, as he and his successor Jan O’Sullivan regularly cited constitutional obstacles to ending the practice.

A group representing Catholic schools presented evidence to the Oireachtas Committee in recent months that baptism certificates were an issue in only a very small minority of cases in which some of them refuse enrolment.

A number of lobby groups have been established to pursue legal changes on the role of religion in primary school admissions. But they are also seeking greater restrictions on the ability of schools to integrate prayer and faith-specific symbols and images into teaching and classrooms.

Mr Bruton made his announcement on how he plans to deal with the issue at a meeting of the select committee, in response to an amendment proposed by Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne to the minister’s school admissions bill.

In response to the announcement, EQUATE has welcomed the Minister’s commitment to amending the Equal Status Act.

Director Michael Barron said: “If as stated, over 90% of schools will no longer be able to use religion as a criteria for admissions then this is a positive step.

"Clarification is needed in relation to the three limited circumstances cited by the Minister as to when a school can use religion as a criteria for admission. The Minister stated that these circumstances were in order to protect minority faith schools and we would need to see the detail and to ensure there are no unintended consequences.

“From the outset we have been clear that we believe that the only full equality and children’s rights option to be an end to the baptism barrier by removing the exemption from the Equal Status Act for publicly funded schools. Families should not feel pressured to baptise their child in order to gain entry to their local school. At present our independently commissioned research has shown that 24% of people would not have baptised their child if they didn’t need it for entry to school so the time for change is well past due.

“While we acknowledge this as progress we remain committed to ensuring that a child’s religion or non-religion is never a factor in their acceptance to a publicly funded school," he said.

“Our published constitutional advice demonstrated that there is no constitutional right to unconditional public funding for all denominational schools. Amending the Equal Status Act as we have suggested would move to a situation where all families have their rights protected rather than some families and religious institutions having extremely strong and privileged protection for their rights while other have very little.

“We wish to acknowledge the commitment from the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton to tackling the baptism barrier and we see this as a first and crucial step in opening up our education system to all children regardless of their religion or belief.”

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