Eimear Dodd reports on Minister Richard Bruton's proposed 'baptism barrier ban'.
Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton TD has proposed changes to the primary school admissions process which would remove religious criteria in the majority of circumstances.
 
Minister Bruton was speaking at the Oireachtas Committee hearing on the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill on 28 June 2017. While the role of religion in school admissions is not a part of this Bill, the Minister had previously indicated that he favours enacting the Admissions to Schools Bill independently to the issues relating to religion.
 
The proposal comes following a consultation process on the role of religion in schools admissions. Over 1,000 written submissions were received by the Department of Education and Skills during this period. There have been sustained calls for the Minister to address the ‘baptism barrier’, whereby non-religious parents feel pressure to baptise their child to obtain a place at a local school.
 
Minister Bruton said: “Earlier this year I set out my view that I believe it is unfair that preference can be given by publicly-funded denominational schools to children of their own religion who might live some distance away, ahead of children of a different religion or of no religion who live close to the school.
 
I also believe that it is unfair that some parents, who might otherwise not do so, feel pressure to baptise their children in order to gain admission to their local school”.
 
The Minister’s proposal would mean that oversubscribed state-funded primary schools with a religious ethos could only use religion as admissions criteria in three scenarios:
 
  • where it would not otherwise be possible to maintain the ethos of the school,
  • where the school is established by a minority religion to ensure that students of that religion can find a place in a school of that ethos,
  • where the school is established by a minority religion, in order to admit a student of that religion who resides in a community consistently served by that school.
 
Amendments would be required to the Equal Status Act for these changes to the rules around school admissions to come into effect. This process could take some time to complete.
 
In a statement on their website, Atheist Ireland called the proposals “an unjust fine-tuning of an already unjust religious discrimination”. The advocacy group, which campaigns for a secular state, stated their concerns that minority faith schools could continue to use religion as an admissions criteria. They also said that “no State-funded school should be allowed to discriminate against any children on the ground of religion”.
 
The draft Admissions to Schools Bill was published in 2016 with the aim of making the primary school enrolment process more transparent. The Bill would require school boards to publish their admissions policy and selection criteria if the school is oversubscribed.
 
There are 3,123 primary schools in the country, of which 96 percent have a faith-based ethos according to figures from the Department of Education. Of these, over 2,800 have a Catholic ethos. There are 191 primary schools run by minority religious organisations with 161 of these schools are
 
under the patronage of the Church of Ireland. Just over three percent of primary schools (111) have a multi-denominational ethos and the majority of these are operated by Educate Together.