We can’t allow schools to discriminate on religious grounds

Approximately 95% of our primary schools are run by churches. This situation cannot be allowed to continue, argues Michael Barron of the rights group, Equate

EARLIER this week, the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton announced that he is starting a new process aimed at delivering on the Programme for Government commitment of reaching 400 non- and multi-denominational schools by 2030.

This is welcome news. In my work with Equate, a children and family rights organisation which advocates for a substantial change in how primary and secondary school education is delivered in Ireland, I speak to parents every day who are crying out for a change in how our state-funded schools are run.

In Ireland we have, by international standards, an unusual schooling system. Around 95% of our primary schools are faith schools, with 90% under the patronage of the Catholic Church.

These schools are legally entitled to refuse to admit children from different faiths or none. Even where such children are admitted, there is overwhelming evidence that arrangements for opting out of religion lessons are often ineffective or are absent, even though they are required by both the Irish Constitution and international law.

We can’t allow schools to discriminate on religious grounds

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently found that Ireland’s international human rights obligations require the Government to take concrete actions to provide opt-outs for children during religion classes; to end the religious discrimination in school admissions; and to provide more non and multi-denominational schools. Similar recommendations were made by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in 2012.

A recent poll by Behaviour and Attitudes found that 84% of respondents believed the school system needs to be reformed so that no child is discriminated against because of their religion, while 46% would not choose Christian schools if given a choice locally.

One-in-five said that they knew someone who had had their child baptised for the sole reason of securing admission to a school. It is clear that the minister needs to move quickly to change a school system that is failing tens of thousands of parents around the country who are demanding change.

In line with calls from Equate, Minister Bruton has asked his department to develop a road-map and set annual targets for each of the next five years for the number of multi-denominational schools to be established, both for new schools and via transfer.

Richard Bruton
Richard Bruton

The minister is clearly committed to prioristising equality in education and we commend him for his willingness to re-energise the whole area of divestment and school patronage, which has become stalled in recent years.

His intervention is timely and much needed.

In Equate, we believe that any new school divestment system that the minister puts in place must ensure that new non and multi-denominational schools are genuinely that — non or multi-denominational.

It would not be acceptable if one religion was given preference over any other under this model or if children of no religion were marginalised in their classroom.

It will be important that the department brings greater clarity to any proposal for joint patronage of schools.

At second level schools with joint patronage arrangements have struggled to ensure the maintenance of a multi-denominational school culture.

We can learn from this and ensure that all non and multi-denominational schools that come about as a result of the minister’s roadmap are, from the outset, fully inclusive.

In addition to providing more non and multi-denominational schools, any reform of our school admission policies needs to remove religious discrimination and we hope that Minister Bruton is brave enough to start this process.

The State is currently sanctioning discrimination in our schools by keeping section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act in our laws which allows state-funded schools to refuse admission on the grounds of religion.

This can’t continue.

Even one child being refused a place in their state-funded local school because of their family’s religion or non-religion is not acceptable in a modern pluralist democracy.

The people of Ireland do not want this discriminatory admission system anymore.

Our research shows that 77% of people nationwide do not think a school should have the right to refuse admission to a child who has a different religion to that of the school’s patron.

Together we can work to ensure that our education system is made fit for purpose in the 21st century, reflecting the diversity of our families, our communities and our society.

Any change to our state primary schools must reflect the different needs of the communities that our schools now serve.

We look forward to working with Minister Bruton to ensure that over the coming years the changes introduced to schools delivers a fairer and inclusive system that values all children in this state equally, regardless of their religion, identity or beliefs.

Michael Barron is executive director of Equate

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