School admission policies: Our world has changed, so must we

At a moment when social diversity is the defining characteristic of our age, it seems at best anachronistic to frame the debate about access to publically-funded education as an issue to be resolved between any particular religion and the State.

At a moment when every terrorist atrocity carried out by Islamic extremists underlines the failure to assimilate every person, irrespective of origin, living in a society to, in the very broadest sense, a shared sense of community, making decisions about access to publically-funded education based on a child’s religion seems, at the very least, unwise.

At its worst, it seems simply dangerous and stupid.

That a Catholic bishop — Bishop of Killaloe Fintan Monahan — feels it appropriate to appoint a priest as the principal of a publically-funded secondary school — St Flannan’s in Ennis — without advertising the job suggests a degree of autocracy dangerously out of step with the needs of our time.

That the new principal, Fr Ignatius McCormack, is the only priest on the staff of about 80 at the co-ed college just confirms that head-in-the-sand disconnect. That disconnect, ultimately self-destructive, is further underlined by the decisions taken by legacy agencies of religious orders that once ran schools, to sell sports grounds attached to schools, thereby diminishing those educational institutions forever.

These issues around school patronage are well rehearsed and divisive but despite assurances from the highest level of Irish Catholicism, about 90% of national schools remain under the control of the local Catholic bishop.

This inequity stands despite collapsing church attendances and the very real difficulties of finding priests to serve parishes. Efforts to change imbalance have been ruthlessly stonewalled and may be not pursued as vigorously as they might have been.

They came to the fore again earlier this week when Education Minister Richard Bruton announced that Catholic primary schools will no longer be allowed discriminate on the basis of religion in admission policies.

Speaking at an Oireachtas education committee, he said this current system is unfair and putting some parents “under pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to their local school.” It also institutionalises hypocrisy and dishonesty at the very ground floor of our schools’ system.

This is no longer a debate about the place of religion in schools, though we insist on framing it as such; in a particularly Irish way, we are fighting historical battles. This is not to diminish or disrespect any religion but just to recognise that our world has changed so much that the idea of one belief system dominating in this way is wrong and untenable.

Catholic schools are not the only ones whose admission policies may have to be reviewed under these headings. Second-level Gaelscoileanna, widely perceived as monocultural institutions where non-native children struggle to find a place, may need to tweak policies to ensure they encourage assimilation rather than something far less admirable.

Current arrangements are obsolete, dangerously so, and a new model, one that recognises the rights and hopes of all who would use our schools, must be found quickly.


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