Q&A: Getting to grips with what the change means for school admissions

What changes are planned and what is proposed? Noel Baker has the answers. 

Q. So what changes are planned by the Minister for Education?

A. Under the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, which passed committee stage yesterday, schools which are not oversubscribed will have to accept all applicants. This means that religion will not be used in admissions to 80% of schools, and this is already the practice in most schools (including denominational schools). That means it is in the 20% of other schools that the issue of religion in the admissions process now needs to be addressed.

Q. So what is proposed?

A. Minister Bruton’s preference is to remove the capacity for primary schools, where they are oversubscribed, to use religion as criteria in the 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; and 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.

Q. What’s the background to all this?

A. In May a forum on the role of religion in primary schools discussed a number of options, including the scrapping of the so-called ‘baptism barrier’. Prior to this Minister Richard Bruton had said he believed it was unfair that preference was given by publicly-funded denominational schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who lived close to the school.

Q. What is the current set-up at primary school level?

A. Denominational primary schools make up 96% of all primary schools in the State. Catholic denominational primary schools, in turn, make up approximately 90% (2802 of the total of 3,123 primary schools) of all primary schools in the State.

Schools run by minority religious organisations account for 6% of primary schools, or 191 out of 3,123 primary schools — the vast majority of these being under the patronage of Church of Ireland (168) and Presbyterian (17) organisations.

Q. Will this need a new law so it can be implemented, and when might that happen?

A. The changes proposed by the minister will require an amendment to section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act. The Minister said in the Oireachtas Committee that he would consider the best way in which to enact this proposal as quickly as possible. According to a spokesman: “Clearly there are complex legal and constitutional issues which will have to be worked out in order to implement it. Minister Bruton also pledged to work with representatives of different communities as this policy proposal is advanced.”

Q. Does this take pressure off providing non-denominational schools?

A. While this should make it easier for children of non-Catholic faiths or no faith to secure access to nearby schools, the Department said it would not impact on plans to deliver more schools. According to a spokesman: “The government is fully committed to delivering 400 multi-denominational and non-denominational schools.”

Q. Who is going to monitor implementation to ensure schools adhere to it?

A. Under the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 the Minister for Education and Skills will have a range of legal powers to ensure that the admissions policy of a school complies with the law, including the power to direct a board of management, and a requirement on the Board of Management to comply with that direction.

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