herald

Monday 26 June 2017

Four options in plans to tackle 'baptism barrier'

Mr Bruton warned of problems
Mr Bruton warned of problems

Four options have been unveiled by Education Minister Richard Bruton to tackle the so-called baptism barrier that allows publicly-funded schools to refuse places to children based on their religion.

Mr Bruton said it is unfair for children to be denied entry because they are not subscribed to a particular faith or for parents to feel pressured into baptising a child to get a place.

One of the four options is to impose an outright ban on schools using religion as a factor in admissions.

However, that rule would also allow religious schools to require parents or pupils to indicate support or respect for its ethos.

Nearest

Ninety-six percent of primary schools in Ireland have a Christian religious patronage and nine out of 10 have a Catholic ethos.

Mr Bruton said the public could also have their say on three other admissions options over the next three months.

One is a catchment area approach. Religious schools would be stopped from giving preference to children of a certain religion who do not live locally.

Another is to introduce a "nearest school rule", with religious schools allowed to give preference to a child of a religion only if it is the nearest school of that particular faith.

The final option is a quota, so a religious school could give preference to children of its own religion for a proportion of its places, but the remaining places would be allocated based on other criteria.

"I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, a non-religious child can be refused entry to the local school, because preference is given to a religious child living some distance away," Mr Bruton said.

"Some parents who might not otherwise do so feel pressure to baptise their children because they feel it gives them more chance of getting into their local school.

"I believe we must address these unfairnesses."

The minister warned that there was no easy fix and that there was a risk of unintended consequences if admission policies were reformed.

Mr Bruton said minority religions could be affected, including the Protestant, Jewish, Islamic and other communities.

He said it could lead to postcode lotteries, which would create divergence in the quality of a school in a more advantaged or disadvantaged area.

Fear

He also said there were risks that reform would breach the Constitution and that administrative difficulties could arise.

Michael Barron, director of Equate, a group campaigning for equal access to publicly-funded schools, said: "Families should not have to fear having a non-baptised child in order to gain entry, nor should they have to sign up to a belief system."

Seamus Mulconry, of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, said: "It is important to clarify that there is no requirement for parents to have their children baptised in order to gain admission to a Catholic school. Reforms will do nothing to alleviate the shortage of school places."

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