Legal profession ‘only likely beneficiary’ of school bill

A bill by the Labour Party that seeks to make it harder for schools to use religion to select pupils might benefit nobody but the legal profession, a Catholic schools’ body claims.

It was one of a number of groups representing religious-run schools to suggest to the Oireachtas Education Committee that the legislation is premature, as wider school-admissions legislation is being considered, and Education Minister Richard Bruton has begun consultation on possible limits or removal of links between religion and enrolment.

The Labour bill proposes that a school would be guilty of discrimination under equal status law if it could not prove that refusing admission to a child who is not of the school’s religious ethos is necessary to maintain that ethos. If a school does not have enough places for all applicants, a child o f a different faith or none who lives in the school’s catchment area would have to be given preference over someone of the school’s religion but who lives outside the area.

The Equal Status (Admission to School) Bill also proposes a school could lose public funding if a pupil with no alternative school is unable to opt out of receiving religious instruction.

The Catholic Primary School Management Association said just one-in-20 of its schools do not take all children who apply, but that difficulties facing parents are about resources rather than religion.

“We would have a real concern that if the bill was to go through, it won’t solve problems we experience. But it could create a field day for lawyers who would have a merry time trying to find loopholes,” its general secretary Seamus Mulconry said.

Labour education spokeswoman, Joan Burton, said most religious patrons, school boards and staff do their best to be inclusive, but that the bill is significantly aimed at areas where population growth has created pressure for school places.

Muslim Primary Education Board chairwoman Asiya Al-Tawash, said there are only two Muslim primary schools in Ireland, but there were more than 8,000 Muslim children of primary school age and 3,500 in secondary schools in 2011. She said they face the same obstacle as other non-Catholic families if a school requires a baptism certificate for enrolment, but the option which some other parents have to baptise a child for school entry is not available to Muslims.

“The majority of schools have a Catholic ethos, leaving Muslim children at the mercy of admissions policies that are seriously curtailing parents’ and students’ choice. Maintaining a school ethos should not be based on 100% of the school population being of one faith, but should reflect the mix of local society,” Ms Al-Tawash said.

Mr Mulconry said the number of over-subscribed Catholic schools around Dublin is growing, but religion is not always a barrier.

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