One of the country’s leading rights groups today accused two senior Government ministers of dodging responsibility on whether to allow school pupils to wear the hijab or other religious dress in class.
The Department of Education claim uniform policy should continue to be a matter for schools and must not act to exclude children from particular religious backgrounds.
But the guidelines, drawn up by Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe and Integration Minister Conor Lenihan, do not recommend that clothing which obscures the face and acts as an “artificial barrier between pupil and teacher” be worn in class.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said it was disappointed the State was not living up to its responsibility to provide education in a non-discriminatory way by leaving the decision up to school principals.
Mark Kelly, ICCL director, said: “This would appear to be a policy not to have a policy,” he said.
“Thanks to the good sense of school principals, reason has prevailed and no child has been excluded from school on the basis of their religious dress.
“However, there is a responsibility on the State to ensure that decisions on such a sensitive issue are taken on a firm lawful basis, and in a consistent way.”
In May the principal of Gorey Community School, one of the largest secondary schools in the State, called for Government guidelines on uniform after a Muslim couple asked that their daughter be allowed to wear the hijab.
The Department of Education refused to offer advice to the school and principal Nicholas Sweetman said an official direction would clarify the issue for schools and Muslim parents.
But in June Fine Gael’s education spokesman Brian Hayes and Labour counterpart Ruairi Quinn said they opposed the wearing of the headscarf.
The guidelines states the current system in which schools decide their own policy is reasonable, works and should be maintained.
While it states no uniform policy should exclude students from a particular religious background, it does not recommend the “wearing of clothing in the classroom which obscures a facial view and creates an artificial barrier between pupil and teacher.”
Schools should also consult with the community and be mindful of obligations placed on them by the Equal Status Acts.
Mr O’Keeffe said: “While 92% of schools in the country are under the patronage of one religion, it is clear that this fact has not operated to exclude pupils of different religions from these schools or from schools operating under other patronage arrangements.
“It seems clear that, where schools have permitted the wearing of the hijab in a colour similar to the school uniform, no problems have been encountered.”
But Mr Kelly warned existing equality laws permit discrimination in order to maintain the religious “ethos” of a school.
He added: “In the absence of a nationally-agreed and enforceable policy, there remains a danger that individual principals could interpret this to permit them to exclude a child for wearing religious dress, such as the hijab.
“The ministers should live up to their responsibility to close this loophole” he added.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) welcomed the move and said it was better for the Government to issue recommendations rather than a prescriptive policy.
John White, ASTI assistant secretary, said: “This recommendation recognises that every school is a unique community of students, teachers and parents, and recognising second-level schools have been tremendously successful in welcoming students from diverse backgrounds into our schools.
“Irish second-level schools are committed to the social project of integration.
“It is vital that schools are supported in developing policies which promote openness and inclusiveness in their communities.”
The Immigrant council of Ireland also welcomed the legislation and called for schools to continue to respect the diversity of the country’s communities.
A spokeswoman added: “However, we also acknowledge that there are issues such as health and safety and the need for teachers and students to be able to effectively communicate which are legitimate and need to be taken into account.
“The proof of the pudding of this policy will be if problems arise in individual schools and how any problems are dealt with.
“Effective communication and mutual respect will be crucial in dealing with any misunderstandings that may arise.”