State-funded Schools Should Never Be Allowed to Discriminate Against Young Children on Religious Grounds

Educate Together: State-funded Schools Should Never Be Allowed to Discriminate Against Young Children on Religious Grounds

Educate Together today notes Archbishop Martin’s defense of the Catholic Church’s discriminatory ‘Catholic First’ school admission policies. In response, Educate Together, Ireland’s equality-based school provider, contends that state-funded schools should never be allowed to discriminate against children on the basis of religion. Educate Together is not aware of any situation in which such discrimination is necessary in order to maintain the ethos of any school.

In a system whereby over 96% of the schools are religious-run, ‘Catholic first’ enrolment policies force many parents to compromise their own values in order for their children to access the local school. This is an unacceptable situation in a modern democratic republic. Children of all religious, cultural and social backgrounds should be able to access all state-funded education on an equal basis.

Progress on School Patronage Divestment

Educate Together agrees with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that progress has been unreasonably slow on the school divestment process. Since 2011, only eight schools have opened in divestment areas, and just one school – a Church of Ireland school – has actually transferred patronage.

The Archbishop has stated that the Church is not to blame for the slow progress. Educate Together contends that in order for the divestment process to be successful, the accommodation options being proposed by Church authorities must be both realistic and appropriate.

In Castlebar for example, an Educate Together school is due to open in a number of weeks as a ‘divestment’ school. However, the Tuam Archdiocese has offered a premises to the Department of Education; Burren National School, which, closed more than 20 years ago largely due to its remote location.

This premises is simply unsuitable as a modern school building. Educate Together is determined to open a school in Castlebar next month and is wiling to work with the Department of Education to resolve this accommodation crisis, and has proposed more suitable accommodation options in this regard.

Simply put, Educate Together will not in good conscience open schools that are inaccessible, that are not viable in the long term, and that do not meet the needs of the communities they are meant to serve. If the divestment process is to be successful, the accommodation being proposed by the Church authorities and the Department must be appropriately located and fit for purpose.

Solution: A National Network of Educate Together Schools

It is Educate Together’s long-standing position that parents should not have to be beholden to any religious institution for the vindication of their right to a state-funded education for their children. It is for this reason that Educate Together provides a model that accepts and treats all children equally. The establishment of a national network of Educate Together schools that guarantee equality of access and esteem to all children is the solution. 

In a number of other areas throughout Ireland parents are being forgotten. There are families in towns and cities up and down the country who were told by the Irish Government that there would be choice in educational provision in their areas. These areas include Longford, Arklow, Killarney Dublin 6 and many others.

We believe that it is eminently possible to build a national network of equality-based Educate Together schools that will provide all families in the country with this choice within 30 minutes travel time in the morning. Our assessment suggests that a national network of approximately 300 Educate Together national schools is now needed. This is a modest number making up only 10% of the primary education system. Educate Together is calling on the Government the Department and the Catholic Church to work with us to provide this network by the year 2030.

Repeal Section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal Status Act

Educate Together’s position on Section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal Status Act has been consistent and clear on this issue for over a decade: on both Employment Equality and Equal Status legislation, Educate Together has argued for the elimination of the exemption for schools set up for a religious purpose. Educate Together has put this position to the Department of Education, to multiple Irish Governments and to the United Nations over many years. Today, Educate Together repeats its unequivocal call for the repeal of section 7 (3) (c) of the Equal Status Act.

However, it is Educate Together’s position that simply eliminating this element of the Equal Status Act will not fully resolve the issue. Simply allowing greater equality of access to Catholic schools will only increase the incidence of families being forced to send their children to Catholic schools against their conscience and lawful preference.

The fundamental problem in Irish education is that in 9 out of 10 locations, families have no alternative but to send their children to schools that are owned and controlled by the Catholic Church and must by law uphold the Catholic world outlook in all aspects of the school programme. Until all families in the country have the choice of a school that guarantees their children equality of esteem, irrespective of their religious background, this issue cannot be resolved.

Ireland must have a balanced education system in which children of all backgrounds can have equal access to an excellent education and are equally respected.