The Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016 is the Government’s attempt to clarify enrolment procedures in Irish schools in the interest of the common good and that is to be welcomed.
However, the Bill itself does nothing to address the ongoing and very real discrimination against young children that happens in religious-run schools all over Ireland. This fact, coupled with the lack of any plans to remove Section 7 3 (c) of the Equal Status Act in the lifetime of this Government, means that this legislative initiative is a missed opportunity.
Educate Together has always contented that state-funded schools should never be allowed to discriminate against children on the basis of religion. In a system wherein 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.
Religious ethos permeating schools
However, simply eliminating the get-out clause used by religious-run schools to discriminate against non-baptised children in their enrolment policies will not fully resolve the issue of discrimination in Irish education. Even if this law was altered, it would not address the right of equality within the classroom. Once within a religious-run school, children from non-Catholic families who ‘opt-out’ of faith formation will continue to experience discrimination as they are removed from certain lessons. This is an inadequate arrangement and does not address the inequalities embedded within the Irish primary school system.
The Bill insists that all schools publish policies on arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction. Educate Together contends that when children of minorities simply ‘opt out’ or faith formation classes within school hours, this leads to exclusion and segregation. When the majority of their classmates are undergoing faith-formation classes, children of no religion in faith-based schools are now to be ‘accommodated’, as demanded by the draft law. 'Accommodating' minority children is not the same as treating all children as equals, something this Bill fails to address or tackle.
More equality-based schools
If the Government really is serious about the common good, then it will focus its energy on providing both equal access to schools and equal respect within schools for all children. A national network of equality-based schools that welcome and cherish all children is what is needed and what would truly serve the common good. Educate Together has welcomed the commitments in the Programme for Government to increase non-denominational and multi-denominational schools to 400 by 2030. This figure echoes Educate Together’s stated aim that all families in Ireland would have access to an equality-based school within 30 minutes travel time from their home.