Paul Rowe, CEO of Educate Together, today addressed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills on the subject of the Education (Admissions to School) Bill 2016. The Bill is a government initiative to clarify enrolment procedures in Irish schools in the interest of the common good and Mr Paul Rowe applauded the Minister and the Department of Education and Skills for their work in this regard.
However, Mr Rowe raised some concerns with the Bill:
The Bill insists that all schools publish policies on arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction. Whilst this step will increase transparency in the ‘opt-out’ process, it will do nothing to address the lack of school choice that is the root cause of such exclusions.
Educate Together contends that when children of minorities simply ‘opt out’ of faith formation classes within school hours, this leads to exclusion. ‘Accommodating’ minority children is not the same as treating all children as equals and proposals to require schools to outline the ‘alternative’ activities for these children do nothing to compensate for this inadequate arrangement.
Educate Together is very concerned that this Bill fails to address the ongoing and very real injustice faced by many families attempting to enrol their children in schools all over Ireland. This is due to a system in which over 96% of schools are religious-run and 'Catholic first’ enrolment policies are effectively sanctioned by Section 7 3 (c) of the Equal Status Act which allows denominational schools the right to discriminate against children on the basis of their religion.
The repeal of Section 7 (3)(c) of the Equal Status Act in conjunction with a provision in the current Education Bill that ensures that no state-funded school be allowed to discriminate against children for reasons of religious, cultural or social background, should be the basis of any effort to remove discrimination from the Irish education system. It is Educate Together’s view that state-funded schools should be open to all. The characteristic spirit of a school should not be dependent on the homogeneity of its student population. Educate Together is not aware of any situation in which discrimination is necessary in order to maintain the ethos of a school.
More equality-based schools needed:
There are still large areas of the country where parents have no alternative but to send their children to denominational schools, and the proposed legislation does nothing to address this. What would truly serve the common good is a national network of equality-based schools that welcome and cherish all children.
Educate Together applauds the recent Government commitments to increase non-denominational and multi-denominational schools to 400 by 2030. It is Educate Together’s hope that the provision of these schools will reflect the popularity amongst families of the Educate Together model of education, a model that neither requires schools to downgrade children on their enrolment lists on the basis of religion nor necessitates children to ‘opt-out’ of lessons during the school day.
Genuine choice of school type that is compatible with the constitutional and human rights of all families can only be achieved if equality-based schools such as those provided under the Educate Together model are available all over Ireland.
An independent state enrolment authority:
Educate Together recommends an independent state authority (managed independently of the school patrons) to ascertain parental demand for different school types and enable the state to allocate buildings and resources accordingly.
In the Lucan area, a densely-populated Dublin suburb, Educate Together schools have taken the initiative and are piloting an area-based common enrolment process to address this problem. We recognise that this is only a partial solution and a more systemic state-based system is required.