June 30, 2017 by johnston00
Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton TD today (Wednesday) set out his preferred policy approach for amending primary school admissions legislation on the issue of the role that religion can play in the process.
Minister Bruton made his comments at the Oireachtas Committee hearing on the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill. The issue of the role of religion in school admissions is not currently part of this Bill, and the Minister has previously set out that he believes that we should enact the Admissions Bill, on which there is broad agreement, on a separate track to the complex issues relating to religion. The Dáil, including the Government parties and Fianna Fáil, has recently voted in favour of taking this separate approach.
The issue of the role of religion in school admissions has been the subject of broad discussion and consultation. The Oireachtas Committee has held hearings on this issue and has recently published a report in which it recommended that changes be made, although it does not advocate any specific change.
The Minister has also held a consultation process on the issue, which involved receiving 1000 written submissions, as well as more than 100 people attending a half-day Forum on the subject.
The Minister said:
“Earlier this year I set out my view that I believe it is unfair that preference can be 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 live close to the school. I also believe that it is unfair that some parents, who might otherwise not do so, feel pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to their local school”.
“Under the Bill being debated today, 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 in fact this is already the practice in most schools (including denominational schools).
“It is in the 20% other schools that this issue now needs to be addressed. I am seeking to be fair to all parents, while recognising the right of all schools to have their distinctive ethos. The aim is to meet the wishes of non-denominational parents – who now amount to well over 10% of their cohort – without unfairly impinging on the rights of other children”.
Minister Bruton set out that his preference is to remove the capacity for state-funded denominational primary schools, where they are oversubscribed, to use religion as a criteria in admissions process except, in three scenarios:
i. where it would not otherwise be possible to maintain the ethos of the school;
ii. 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;
iii. 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.
This is in effect a version of option 4(iii) as set out in the consultation paper published by the Minister. It will require an amendment to section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act.
What the Minister is setting out today is his proposed policy approach – 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.
Denominational primary schools make up 96% of all primary schools in the State. Catholic denominational primary schools, in turn, make up approximately 90% of all primary schools in the State. Schools run by minority religious organisations account for 6% of primary schools, or 191 out of 3123 primary schools – the vast majority of these being under the patronage of Church of Ireland (168) and Presbyterian (17) organisations.
The aim of this proposed provision is to ensure that, for the vast majority of State-funded primary schools religion cannot be used as a criteria in school admissions. It is expected that the result of enacting this provision will be that religion cannot be used as a criteria for admissions in virtually all such schools the exception being the small number of oversubscribed schools of minority religious ethos.
Minister Bruton strongly supports the principle that schools are institutions at the centre of a community, and that Government policy should support the development of the school community as this is ultimately to the benefit of the service provided to pupils. There are a number of other measures contained within the Admissions Bill which support this principle, including the strong statement that it is the school which decides its admissions policy, and that who which it can give priority in running this policy include – students from the local area, sublings of existing pupils, children or grandchildren of past pupils.
Minority religious families
The proposal provides comprehensive carve-outs aimed specifically at protecting the position of families of minority religion, given the fact that, as a result of the makeup of the population, changes in this area risk having a major impact on the ability of these families to find places in schools which are genuinely of that ethos. These carve-outs are aimed at:
- firstly, protecting the ability of schools to maintain their ethos, so that schools of this ethos remain in existence to provide for minority religious families (via carve-out (i)), and
- secondly to protect the right of individual children of minority religions to gain access to these schools (via carve-outs (ii) and (iii)).
The Minister has said from the start of the process that protecting the position of minority religious families, whose position is uniquely threatened by any changes in this area, is a major priority for him, and the provisions announced today reflect that.
According to the most recent census data, 78% of the population is Catholic. As such, Catholic primary schools will retain high percentages of Catholic pupils in their school populations and as such will be able to maintain their ethos. Given that Catholic primary schools make up 2802 of the total of 3123 primary schools (90%), Catholic families will be able to find places for their children in local schools of that ethos if they wish. In very rare scenarios where due to unique demographic circumstances (for example among Border communities with majority non-Catholic populations) Catholic schools find their ethos under threat, it is intended that they will be able to rely on the carve-out (i) above to continue to use religion as a criterion in admissions, if they are oversubscribed.
The changes will mean that for the first time non-religious families, who now account for almost 10% of the population (a figure which is significantly higher among parenting ages – close to 20%), will now be able to access their local State-funded primary school on the same basis as other citizens.
The Minister has come to this conclusion following a lengthy consultation process, involving a written submission phase which resulted in nearly 1000 submissions being received, and a subsequent half-day Forum which over 100 people attended. Throughout this process the concerns of minority religious communities, that they should be able to find places for their children in schools which are genuinely of their ethos, were very strongly expressed. The proposals articulated by the Minister today are aimed at comprehensively dealing with those concerns, in the context of the Government’s overall vision of equality of opportunity.
Catchment area option
As part of this consultation process, some organisations expressed a preference for the ‘catchment area’ option – namely, that denominational schools should be allowed to continue to use religion as a factor in school admissions to give preference to children of their own religion from within the catchment ahead of children of other/no religion within the catchment.
It is important to note that there is no centrally-administered system of catchment areas governing Irish schools. Some schools in practice have catchment areas, often based on parishes in the case of denominational schools, but these have no formal or legal status and are not monitored or overseen by the Department.
As the ‘catchment area’ option was teased out during the course of the consultation process a number of significant problems emerged:
Firstly, and most importantly, it would continue to leave non-denominational families at a significant disadvantage when it comes to admissions to their local State-funded primary school. Given the makeup of our primary schools, with 90% of schools under Catholic patronage, in the vast majority of cases the local primary school is a Catholic school. In effect, the catchment area option would mean that, in gaining access to their local state-funded primary school, non-denominational families would be slightly further up the queue, but they would still be behind local Catholic families in that queue. The Minister considers that there is an inherent injustice in this that is not compatible with the Government’s basic aim of a achieving a fair society.
Secondly, there are significant logistical and technical issues with putting place a system of catchment areas for 3123 primary schools, which were not really addressed by organisations or individuals as part of the consultation process, and to which based on the Department’s own analysis there is no easy solution. For example:
- there is a basic problem with involving the Department of Education and Skills in drawing catchment areas where the Department cannot possibly be familiar with specific local and religious issues relating to over 3100 local primary schools, leading to inevitable boundary disputes;
- by requesting schools or patron bodies to draw up catchment areas we may end up postponing the day when change occurs;
- there is no consensus on how large catchment areas for an individual school should be. Eg if there is more than one Catholic primary school in the Catholic parish, can each school use the parish as the catchment area or is there an obligation to divide it up in order for the changes to have a meaningful impact on non-denominational families? If there is an obligation to divide the parish up in this scenario, who has responsibility for drawing these lines?
- Who would be responsible for adjudicating on boundary disputes which are certain to arise?
- International experience shows that introducing catchment areas has a negative impact on inclusion and equality of opportunity