Educate Together welcomes the publication of the “Schools and the Equal Status Act” document published today by the Department of Education and Science and the Equality Authority.
This document will be a useful guide to schools preparing policies in the coming years. It will enable schools to make significant strides forward in ensuring the inclusion of all children by guaranteeing equality on grounds of gender, family status, sexual orientation, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community.
However, it is very unclear how this document will enable schools to address the on-going issue of religious discrimination in the Irish primary education system.
The document highlights the inadequacy of the provisions of the Equal Status Act. Educational Institutions are still exempt from the rigours of the Act and are allowed to discriminate in favour of children of specific religions in their enrolment policy. They can also discriminate on religious grounds in their selection of staff.
The document refers to the inclusive school but it is difficult to see how a school that allows itself to discriminate on grounds of religion can indeed be inclusive.
Whilst a case can be made that such discrimination is necessary to ensure a particular religious ethos, the rights of parents and families must be brought to the fore. The rights of teachers to work in an environment in which their religious freedoms are respected must also be addressed.
While 99% of all Irish primary schools are denominational schools and legally obliged to uphold the religious ethos of their patrons, it is unacceptable that children of the vast majority of families have no choice but to attend a school that asserts its religious identity in this way.
The rights of the minority of Irish parents who do not describe themselves as members of the main religious community are being ignored in this situation. Recent Census figures alone show that the percentage of people in this category is 12% and rapidly growing.
It is unacceptable that the State continues to avoid it responsibility for this situation. It violates many international conventions on human rights and directly contradicts Article 42 of the Constitution of Ireland.
“The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State or to any particular type of school designated by the State.”
Educate Together schools operate under a Charter that obliges them in law to ensure that all children have equal access to the school irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background. This legally defined ethos guarantees that the identity of all children is equally respected in all aspects of school life. Our schools have unilaterally declared that they will honour in full all the requirements of the Equal Status Act(2000) and the Employment Equality Act(1998) and will not seek any derogation on religious grounds either in relation to enrolment policy, operational procedures or in the selection of staff.
We call on the Minister for Education and Science to ensure that schools that give such undertakings are available as a choice to all Irish parents.