16 January, 2017 - Speech by Minister Richard Bruton on School Admissions Policy

Monday 16 January 2017

Extract from speech by Minister for Education Richard Bruton TD

Introduction

I would like to thank Michael Barron and Equate for hosting this event and for inviting me along. I have met Michael and his team on a number of occasions since taking office, and I look forward to continuing to work with them as we reform our school system.

I have set the ambition that within a decade, Ireland’s education service will be the best in Europe.

There are many aspects to this, such as being the best at providing opportunities for children from disadvantaged areas, the best at supporting children with special educational needs, the best at educating the skilled workers that can support a growing economy.

One of the most complex and challenging elements of this is how we deal with school ethos and religious and moral education, an area where beliefs are strongly held and changing rapidly. International events, and the difficulties of other countries in integrating minority religious communities remind us that we must tread extremely carefully in this area. However I believe that in this area of our education service, as in all others, we should set the ambition to be the best, and becoming the best means changing.

Parents are recognised by our Constitution as the primary educators of their children. I believe that a desire on behalf of religious parents to educate their children in their faith is welcome and should be respected. This principle is reflected in the Programme for Government. Equally, however, I believe that non-religious parents or parents of minority religions should not be unfairly disadvantaged in seeking to admit their children to their local publicly-funded school.

I believe that children should have the opportunity to understand the differing views of those of different faiths and of none, and the crucial importance to our community of being able to respect those differences.

The patronage and ethos of our schools is not something which this generation of politicians, public servants, school managers or teachers have created. It is something we have inherited, and reflects a very different era in Ireland, and change is needed to meet the needs of today’s families. 96% of our primary schools are under the patronage of Christian religious organisations. It is important to acknowledge of course that these organisations began founding schools almost two centuries ago, at a time when few others were volunteering to do so, and provided a system of national education.

In particular, 90% are of Roman Catholic ethos. However, over a third of couples who are getting married are choosing to do so in a non-religious ceremony, and all the evidence points to a population in which very significantly fewer than 90% of young families are religious.

There will never be the resources to allow all parents to enrol their children in State-funded schools reflecting exactly their precise denominational preference. The aim must be the greatest good for the greatest number – accommodating children as best we can and ensuring that the choice of parents is respected as far as possible.

This clearly means:

  • expanding the range of choice of schools available
  • ensuring fair access to local schools
  • improving how we accommodate children who are not part of the denominational ethos of the school they attend
  • facilitating parents who want tuition in their own faith where possible
  • ensuring that regardless of the specific denomination of the school, a context is provided for respect for all faiths and none

There are several different strands to the response that we are developing. First and foremost, we must develop more multi-denominational and non-denominational schools. The Programme for Government sets a target of delivering 400 such schools by 2030, and in the coming weeks I will announce further details on how we are going to achieve that. We must also do more to support children who are in religious primary schools but whose parents do not wish them to take part in religious education classes, in accordance with their constitutional rights.

 

Admissions

We must also address the complex and challenging issues surrounding the role of religion in admissions to schools.

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.

I believe it is unfair that, under the current system, many 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.

However, no one should pretend that these issues are simple, or that there is an easy fix which solves everything and leaves no possible unintended consequences.

Possible approaches

Six months ago the Government supported a Labour Party private members’ Bill aimed at dealing with this issue. There are significant issues that would need to be worked out in respect of this Bill before it progresses – administrative issues, legal issues, and issues in respect of the position of minority religions. However we support the principle of the Bill, and we proposed a motion which was voted through by a large majority of the Dáil, supporting the Bill and requesting the Oireachtas Committee to examine the issue, and in particular possible constitutional issues and unintended impacts on the position of minority religions.

More recently, I tasked my Department with doing some work on this issue, to sketch out possible approaches for how the issue could be addressed through legislation, taking into account the important position of minority religions, the constitution and also possible impacts on the administrative process of running over 3000 primary schools.

This work has focused on primary schools, as this is where the issue is most acutely felt by parents.

It is also important to bear in mind that these issues only arise in respect of the 20% of schools which are oversubscribed – the percentage of religious primary schools that are oversubscribed is probably much lower. Schools which are not oversubscribed accept all applicants regardless of religion – this will become explicit law following the enactment of the Admissions Bill later this year.

Arising from that work we have developed four approaches, none of which is straightforward, and each of which raises difficulties either in terms of impacts for minority religions, administrative difficulties in successfully running an education system, or possibly in terms of constitutional rights.

In developing the options we are mindful of the need to balance competing Constitutional rights – those of children, parent and religious denominations – against a background of the State’s duty to provide for education and marshalling resources properly and fairly.

Many different groups and people have strong views on these issues, and stand to be impacted by these changes if they are put through, so I would be very interested to hear any and all opinions on these issues. I plan to put in place a process in the coming weeks so that those views can be formally sought and feed in to the development of proposals.

A large majority of the Dáil, including Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and a large number of independents, has agreed in a motion last June that the Admissions Bill is not the vehicle through which to deal with this issue. The Admissions Bill contains a large number of practical, common-sense, non-ideological reforms to make the process of school admissions easier and more transparent for families, and my aim is to have this Bill enacted in the coming months. The concern of the Dáil was, I believe, that if the complex controversial and possibly unconstitutional issues relating to religion become linked in to the Admissions Bill, then that Bill could be delayed and all the common-sense measures on which everyone agrees not implemented.

1. The catchment area approach

This would institute catchment areas into Irish education legislation for the first time, and would permit a school to give preference to children of its own religion from within the catchment area. However it would prohibit religious schools from giving preference to children of their own religion who live outside the catchment area ahead of non-religious children who live inside the catchment. Effectively it would institute an order or priority – children of the same religion from within the catchment area, followed by children of other religions or no religion from within the catchment area, followed by children from outside the catchment area.

The great benefit of this option is that it could be designed so as to protect the rights of minority religious groups to run schools and protect the ethos of their schools, by allowing minority religious schools to draw applicants from wider geographical areas.

However significant problems emerge on the administrative and technical front, and these are not dealt with by the Labour Bill which proposed this approach. Vast numbers of schools do not have catchment areas, and there is no centrally administered system of catchment areas. This option would involve creating some such type of central administration. It would have to be carefully designed so as to prevent schools creating artificially large catchment areas in order to maximise the numbers of children from their religious groups who could be admitted, in order to frustrate the intentions of the legislation. There is also the issue, in the case of Catholic schools, of how the situation where there are two or more schools within one parish is dealt with.

It also must be noted that catchment areas, when introduced in other jurisdictions, have sometimes had unintended consequences sometimes referred to as ‘postcode lottery’. Through this process, since a family’s address now plays a big role in determining what schools their children can get into, social mobility and diversity reduces. Schools in more disadvantaged areas risk suffering a vicious circle of declining investment and increasing concentration of problems in the school community.

It is also worth pointing out that change based on catchment or distance will for example disadvantage parents who place their children in a school that is convenient to where the parents work, or because the crèche facilities proximate to the school are the most suitable or indeed that the school is convenient to where family members reside who assist with child minding.

2. The ‘nearest school rule’

The second option is very similar to the first option, but instead of catchment areas, you would institute a ‘nearest school rule’. This rule would state that a school could only give preference to a child of its own religion where that child is the nearest school of that religion for that child.

The advantage of this model is that it would not require the creation of a whole new architecture of centrally-sanctioned catchment areas. The disadvantages of this model would be the same as with the catchment area model, risking creating postcode lotteries, but with the added disadvantage that it would interfere with natural boundaries of parishes. For example, a family may live in a particular parish, be very active in that church community, be on the board of management of the religious-run school in that parish, but find that their children cannot gain admission to the school as there happens to be a closer school within a neighbouring parish.

3. Quota

The third option is to institute a quota, and to say for example that a religious school can give preference to children of its own religion in respect of a maximum of for example 25, 55, or 75% of its places. This is a somewhat crude measure, but would help ensure that a certain minimum number of places in religious schools are reserved for children to be allocated based on criteria other than religion

For example, this would mean that a religious school would only be allowed to apply a preference towards children of its own religion in respect of 55% of the places. In respect of the remaining 45% of the places, other admissions criteria would apply in the normal way – for example, proximity to the school or lottery. Again, the system would need to be carefully designed to avoid unintended consequences.

4. Simple prohibition

The final option is simply to prohibit all publicly-funded schools from giving any preference to children based on religion, with no limitations for geography or anything else. Schools would remain open to seek to ensure that pupils or their parents do not disagree with the ethos of the school, for example by requiring parents or students to sign a declaration that they support or respect the ethos of the school

This means that schools would only use other admissions criteria – for example proximity, lottery. No local child will be disadvantaged under this model. It avoids the need to impose boundaries or a nearest school rule.

As with the other approaches, this option also throw up disadvantages.

It would severely impact on the capacity of minority religious groups to run schools to cater for people of their ethos, and I believe we need to hear the views of those groups on these issues. Given the make-up of the population, if a Protestant or an Islamic primary school for example was prohibited from using religion as an admissions criteria, it is hard to see how it could maintain an ethos among its school community and remain a school of that religion in any real sense.

Also, while I know there are various different opinions on this issue, there is a question mark over the constitutionality of this measure, given the constitutional right of religious denominations to manage their own affairs, a right which has been upheld by the Supreme Court to include the right to run schools. Right across the country, communities of religious people feel strong ties to their local school almost as well as their local church, have been involved in those institutions over many years, and may feel that a change like this lessens those ties.

Conclusion

There is no simple solution to this challenge, and there are strongly held views among people who stand to be impacted. No one should pretend that these issues are simple, or that there is an easy fix which solves everything and leaves no possible unintended consequences. In particular, as we develop reforms we must strive to avoid impacts on the rights of minority religions. We should live and let live, and aim for the greatest good for the greatest number.

I look forward to hearing your views and progressing this very important issue.