Irish voters face controversy over Catholic-run schools' admission policies

One of the issues that is likely to be to the fore in Ireland's general election, slated for Feb. 26, is the future of denominational education. The Labour Party, which was the smaller of the coalition parties in the last government, has pledged to end the "baptism barrier" to school entry if re-elected and to double the number of multi-denominational schools to 200 by 2021.

It's a play for the votes of parents frustrated at not being able to secure a place for their child in oversubscribed schools in particular areas of the capital, Dublin. As the vast majority of schools operate under Catholic patrons, the church is being heavily criticized by some for standing over what critics perceive as a discriminatory policy.

Primary education in Ireland is primarily a church-state partnership where the state funds education provided by religious orders or local parish schools. These Catholic patrons have often provided the land on which schools were built and made contributions to the building costs and running of the schools.

The vast majority of children in Ireland, 96 percent, attend denominational schools, of which Catholic patrons account for 90 percent of schools. The Church of Ireland is 5 percent, with other religious patrons including Presbyterian, Jewish and Muslim bodies.

There is a growing cohort of "Educate Together" multi-denominational schools (1.5 percent) whose enrollment policy operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

Amid anecdotal tales of parents baptizing their children in order to secure a place in their local Catholic school, the school admission system is coming under scrutiny. Irish society has changed significantly in the last two decades. During its economic boom, there was net immigration bringing religious and cultural diversity. Added to this is an increasingly vocal minority who want to see an end to denominational education.

The new children's rights organization EQUATE have urged voters to ask politicians seeking their vote to "Open the School Gates." Separately, a petition set up by Dublin lawyer, Paddy Monahan, has attracted almost 20,000 signatures in favor of overturning the preference given to baptized Catholic children in Catholic schools.

According to EQUATE spokesman Michael Barron, their "research shows that over 84 percent of people believe that our schools should be reformed so that no child is excluded because of their religion or non-religion."

One measure the Labour Party is working on is an amendment to the existing exemptions for denominational schools under the Equal Status Act, which would force denominational schools to take children "regardless of their religion" so that parents no longer "feel compelled" to baptize their children. "We must provide parents and children with access to their local schools, regardless of their beliefs," a spokesman for the party said.

On Feb. 4, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its recommendations to the Irish State, appeared to back this calling for a significant increase in the availability of non-denominational or multi-denominational schools and an amendment to the existing legislative framework to eliminate discrimination in school admissions, including the Equal Status Act.

However, according to the chairman of the Council for Education of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, Bishop Brendan Kelly, "In general, baptism is not a requirement for entry to a Catholic school, but rather it is a criterion used when there are more applicants than places available."

Writing in the Irish Times, Kelly underlined that the vast majority of Catholic primary schools are not oversubscribed which means that they accept all students whose parents apply for admission.

However, there is a small minority of schools that are oversubscribed in the Dublin area. Oversubscribed schools must publish an enrollment policy listing the criteria used to determine school places. "These criteria usually include having siblings in the school or belonging to a specific geographic area," according to the bishop.

Just 17 Catholic schools in the greater Dublin area restrict admission on religious grounds. In Kelly's view, "The obvious solution would be to provide more school places in these areas."

At the launch of Catholic Schools Week Jan. 31-Feb. 6, Bishop John Buckley of Cork and Ross told NCR, he'd "never heard of a case where they look for the baptism certificate to get into the school."

Fr. Tom Deenihan, general secretary of Catholic Primary School Managers Association (CPSMA), which represents 2,900 primary schools across the country commented to NCR, "It would be a pity if a number of isolated incidences dictated the policy for all schools throughout the country."

The Department of Education wants admissions policy to prioritize children on the basis of geographical proximity to a school as the main criterion in determining school entry.

Asked about location as a criterion for school entry, the chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, Fr. Michael Drumm, referred to the situation in England where geography is the sole criterion.

He warned that it creates "far more serious problems than the problems we have at the moment" with people buying and renting houses closer to the oversubscribed school and some parents left disappointed.

"As long as a school is oversubscribed there are always going to be people who are disappointed. So the best solution to oversubscription is more schools and places if that can be provided," he said.

Speaking on RTE Radio Jan. 23, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin highlighted that there is much greater diversity in patronage in Dublin than elsewhere in Ireland. Catholic primary schools account for 80 percent of schools in the greater Dublin area.

"In some of the cases, the Educate Together and the Church of Ireland schools are also full. So a person who might not get a Catholic school in those areas won't get a place in those schools either," Martin highlighted.

According to Martin, some excellent schools in deprived areas are losing students and teachers as parents pass them by in a bid to get their child into more desirable schools. "Parish priests will tell me in wealthy parishes, it isn't that people have no baptismal cert, it is that people are moving into areas because there is access to certain schools," he said.

Another contentious area is the divesting of schools under Catholic patronage to alternate patrons. In 2011, then-Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn of the Labour Party, established an advisory group to make recommendations on how primary schools could become more inclusive of different traditions, religions and beliefs.

In April 2012, the Report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector published its findings and acting on those findings, Quinn started a process to look at the possible transfer of some schools run by the Catholic church to other school patron bodies in 44 areas around the country.

Over the five intervening years, there has been criticism of the church over the slowness of the process of divesting with as few as nine schools divested so far. But the bishops have highlighted that it is not the church that is stalling, it is parents' opposition in schools earmarked for a change of patron and local politicians, including members of the Labour Party, who oppose change, sensing the temperature within their local communities.

A survey on parental preferences on primary school patronage conducted by the Department of Education in 2013, in which parents in 306 Catholic schools were surveyed, found just 9 percent recommended change. The main aim of the surveys was to identify the level of interest in additional forms of patronage in areas of stable population.

In 15 areas, the report says that there was insufficient demand for change. In 23 areas, the report suggested a limited change based on parental demand. In these 23 areas, those who expressed an opinion in favor of change amounted in each case to between 2.2 percent and 8 percent of parents with children in school in these areas.

In the view of Dr. Rik Van Nieuwenhove, who lectures at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, the results of the survey were "a source of embarrassment to those who had hoped for a ringing endorsement for their proposals for a major reconfiguration of the Irish educational landscape."

In his interview with RTE Radio, Martin said, "The business of looking at diversity should have been looked at much earlier."

He warned that if the church in Ireland wants to maintain Catholic schools then it cannot maintain the 80 percent it currently oversees in Dublin. "I've never asked to maintain that large number of schools -- I've said 50 percent at most," he stated.

He highlighted that Catholic schools "have a very good reputation for inclusion," but that there are people who don't want to go to a school with a religious ethos at all.

Emphasizing that Ireland has some "extraordinarily good Catholic schools," he ruled out a state monopoly of education, warning it could result in a disaster similar to how the state has run its health boards.

"We have to have a pluralist Ireland but I want to work to ensure that we can have Catholic schools for those parents who want it."

It's a view that chimes with that of his Church of Ireland counterpart, Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Richard Clarke, who told The Irish Catholic Jan. 28 that the "notion that denominational education is no longer fit for purpose is more a political notion than actually something that will stand up."

Referring to a recent survey of parents of children in Church of Ireland national schools, he said it showed there was "utter satisfaction" with the system and that people for the most part were "utterly content with the patronage of the bishops."

For the time being, Clarke believes, there is going to be "a legitimate place for schools that are of a denominational hue" and he warned that the notion of sweeping away denominational schools is part of "a secularist agenda."

"It doesn't stack up when it comes to people's use of denominational education or satisfaction with them," Clarke added. "… I think it should be perfectly possible in a liberal democracy to live with a mixed economy on this matter."

[Sarah Mac Donald is a journalist based in Dublin.]

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