A survey conducted by Behaviour and Attitudes on behalf of a newly-formed group called Equate found more than three-quarters of respondents do not believe a school should have the right to refuse admission to a child who has a different religion to that of the school’s patron, while 62% of those questioned think reform of school patronage should be a key priority for the next government.
The findings from the survey comes as Education Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, said she would scrap Rule 68, which states that “of all parts of the school curriculum, religious instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties”.
At a speech delivered on Tuesday at the launch of the Education Matters Yearbook, Ms O’Sullivan said that Rule 68 was “archaic” and would be abolished in January.
“It may have survived for 50 years, but in January it will be removed, along with any other rules that don’t speak to the diverse and welcoming nature of our modern school system,” she said.
The Iona Institute said the “unilateral” decision by the minister to remove Rule 68 was “another attack on the rights of faith-based schools”.
Its spokesman, David Quinn, said while it was clear that the Irish education system needed to change, with much faster divestment of denominational schools to other patron bodies, “the remaining denominational schools must be allowed to have a strong, faith-based ethos, otherwise the rights of parents who want to send their children to such schools are undermined to satisfy the demands of other parents who have a different educational vision”.
He added: “Eventually the various Churches may have to take a constitutional case to protect their rights.”
In her speech on Tuesday Ms O’Sullivan said: “The Equal Status Act must be amended so that local schools are required to prioritise local children, no matter their religion. My party has agreed that our manifesto will include a commitment to do exactly that. And we are already looking at possible drafts of what that legislation might look like.”
At the launch of Equate yesterday, its executive director, Michael Barron, said there was “a real yearning for change in how education is delivered right around this country”.
In addition to changes around patronage and admissions policies, it also wants to see changes in the classroom, so that families could opt in, rather than having to opt out, of religious instruction, which the organisation feels should come at either the start or finish of the school day.
The Bishops’ Council for Education said it believed religious education played “a key role in all faith schools” and that many parents wanted to have their children educated in line with their religious convictions. “If the ethos of faith schools is undermined then the rights of such parents are compromised,” said the council. “In our view the autonomy of schools, with regard to religious education and admissions policies, should be enhanced rather than weakened.”