Ireland is a rapidly changing society yet the system of admissions policies to primary schools reflects a by gone era. Thus, of the 3,300 primary Schools in Ireland the vast majority of schools are denominationally run – 96% under religious patronage; 90% of these state funded primary schools are run by Catholic Church. By drawing on section 7 (c) of the Equal Status Act, schools funded by ALL taxpayers are effectively run by religious groups that can discriminate against children in terms of accessing school places
The debate concerning discrimination in primary schools has two separate, though ultimately connected dimensions: i) accessing school; ii) teaching of religious values in schools
In terms of access to schools a hierarchy operates wherein Catholic administered school boards have consistently pressured the schools they oversee to admit on a ‘religious first’ basis. This often means requiring baptisimal certificates to permit entry. 1This facilitates the entry of local Catholics first, Catholics from all over Ireland second; and all other minority religions and the non-religious last.
One effect of this has been for many parents, often against their own beliefs and wishes, to acquire baptism certificates as a matter of necessity to gain a school place. Another is that children who are not Catholic have been debarred entry, because of a shortage of places, into their local primary schools. Such processes effectively sanction discrimination by state-funded institutions.
There are of course some demographic factors that have underpinned rise in religious discrimination in the last 15 years, especially within urban rather than rural settings.
i) The 2016 Census recorded a growing population of 4,757,976
Ireland has a high fertility rate, as well as a young population – 9.6% of the population under 6 compared with EU average of 6.3%. In 2008 Ireland had the highest birth rate in the EU.
These demographic processes have been compounded by under-investment in additional capacity for schools especially in Dublin. One fifth of Irish Catholic Schools are oversubscribed but this itself may be an artefact of multiple registrations by parents who may register their children in different schools.
B. Ireland is also changing in terms of diversity and pluralism.
The 2011 Census indicated that Ireland is becoming increasingly diverse: there were 544, 357 non-Irish nationals in the State – 12% of the population – an almost 30% increase on the 2006 figure. It also noted that there were 196 nationalities in the state, with the Muslim religion now constituting the third biggest religion.
Secularisation is difficult to define. Hence, in the Census, where individuals are questioned about religious identification, the number of people stating they were Catholic was still quite high, albeit declining. In 2011 83% of the population identified themselves as Catholic but this is largely because respondents confuse the person’s current religion or beliefs, which is what the Census is trying to ascertain, with the beliefs they have been brought up with. Crucially, the census contains no question concerning religious practice. To examine the latter we need to look at the European Social Survey. In 2014, the ESS reports only 39% of the population was attending mass once a week; in 2010 this was 48%; in 2002 63%; and it stood at over 90% in the 1970s. Other polls such as the RTE exit poll conducted by Behaviour and Attitudes following the March 2016 election found weekly attendance to be as low as 34%. Moreover, both polls indicated that these respondents attending Church were in the higher age category: usually over 55 years and older i.e. those who do not tend to have children entering into primary schools. This has to be correlated with the increase in numbers of those indicating no religion in the 2011 census – up 45% from 2006. Other indications of increasing secularization also exist: only six priests were ordained in 2011. One-third of those who are getting married are doing so through non-religious ceremonies. Same sex marriage has also become a reality in Ireland. Such secularisation has to be seen as the result of a complex number of factors – urbanization, change in values through mass media and television, increasing education, knowledge about past clerical abuses, Magdalene Laundaries etc.
Nevertheless, what these processes indicate is that the Catholic Church is in long-term, irreversible decline, a process that had already occurred in nearly all other Western European states.
What should happen?
There needs to be equality and fairness in the provision of education for children irrespective of religion. Discrimination in terms of access for school places needs to end immediately. Schools are publicly funded institutions, paid through everyone’s taxes, and therefore need to be free from selective and pernicious discrimination.
Education of course is a human right. Equal respect for children and parents presupposes equal access. The Irish Constitution in Articles 42 and 44 protects the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction of that school.
Article 44.2 states that the State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
It is, therefore, important to end religious discrimination against children now.
As part of this the Catholic church needs to divest itself of a number of schools. By the beginning of 2016 3 out of 3,300 Schools had been transferred to non-denominational status. This is wholly unsatisfactory. Legal change will be required to speed up the hand-over of schools.
This should happen in conjunction with the creation of State-run secular schools.
There is also a need to invest in new buildings and premises to cater for a growing population.
But this is only a partial solution. In the immediate period, a majority of schools will still be permitted to discriminate in terms of their entry policies. This qualification also applies to developing more multi-denominational schools. This will be a very slow process that allows existing Church-patronised schools to continue to discriminate on religious grounds.
Section 7(3)(c) the Equal Status Act denominational Schools has been interpreted to mean schools may favour children in terms of religion in the enrolment process.
As a matter of urgency this provision needs to be removed immediately.
The government has recently proposed four modifications. The Minister of Education, Richard Bruton has accepted that:
‘I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, a non-religious child can be refused entry to the local school, because preference is given to a religious child living some distance away.
I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, many parents who might not otherwise do so feel pressure to baptise their children because they feel it gives them more chance of getting into their local school.
I believe we must address these unfairnesses.’
Yet three of the four solutions he proposes are problematic and even the fourth entails a problematic qualification.
Option 1. The catchment area approach allows schools to continue to discriminate on religious grounds by prioritizing the entry of Catholic children within their catchment area.
Option 2. Such discrimination is equally evident with regard to the nearest school rule.
Option 3. Using a quota system also continues to allow a Catholics first policy in terms of admission, albeit limited to a certain percentage.
Option 4. Simple prohibition. This seems the most effective approach. Schools should only be able to select pupils according to who is in their catchment area or whether it is the nearest school available to the child. Religion should not be a basis in this decision. However, it is then stated that parents may be required to sign an agreement stating they support and respect the ethos of the school. This is a nebulous proposition. If it means that schools can continue to teach religious values throughout the day then this is manifestly unjust and needs to be opposed. Rather schools should be required to teach religion after core teaching hours and not throughout the day.
In the longer-term, as publicly funded institutions, schools should ultimately be patronized by the State and the State alone. It is only by doing this that we can end discrimination against children accessing primary education and ensure their right to a non-doctrinaire education.
1 See Education Equality. Equality in Ireland: Your Questions Answered