Government plans to maintain the right of schools to reserve places for children of past pupils were the subject of strong political differences in the Dáil yesterday.
One Fine Gael TD criticised party colleague Education Minister Richard Bruton’s proposal to limit the proportion of places which schools could set aside for sons or daughters of former students.
During the second-stage debate on the School Admissions Bill, Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick disagreed with the previous Oireachtas Education Committee recommendation that schools not be allowed to give priority to any children of past pupils.
“There’s a tradition in this country that children generally attend the same school as their parents,” said Mr Fitzpatrick.
“For us to put up a barrier in this regard is wrong, and it’s not fair to either the children, their parents, or indeed the schools.”
Mr Bruton plans to introduce amendments at the committee stage of the bill to deal with the issue, believing there may be political consensus around a 25% limit.
Fianna Fáil education spokes-man Thomas Byrne said in July that the figure was in a ‘ball park’ that he would support. Mr Bruton’s predecessor, Jan O’Sullivan, published a similar bill last year and had suggested a 10% limit would be preferable.
Mr Fitzpatrick said he saw problems with any restriction on schools giving preference to past pupils’ children, saying such policies have worked successfully in the past. If those students represented 35% of applicants, he suggested as an example, some would still be treated unfairly.
Former Labour leader Joan Burton said the issue was one of the most divisive when she was Tánaiste in the last government, in which many ministers, and some in the current Cabinet, had attended top-of-the-range private schools.
“There was a very vocal and lively campaign before the election to ensure that these schools would ensure this privilege of giving access, in whole or in part, to the children or grandchildren and relatives of past pupils,” said Ms Burton.
Anti-Austerity-Alliance/People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger said allowing any rules that favour past pupils’ children would be a continuation of the “old boys’ and old girls’ network”, particularly in areas like her Dublin West constituency where the one in four people who are not of Irish origin had no family history of attending local schools.
The main criticism of the School Admissions Bill has been its silence on the ‘baptismal barrier’ under which equality legislation allows over-subscribed faith-based schools to turn away pupils of a different or no religion. Mr Bruton has said the complex constitutional and other issues would be best dealt with by the Oireachtas committee’s hearings about a related Labour Party bill.
However, Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall said the possibility of a law being tested in the Supreme Court or the potential need for a referendum should not be used to impede reform.
“We can’t use that concern as an excuse for long-fingering something that is a blatant area of discrimination against many of our citizens,” she said.
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