Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

The publication of the Schools Admissions Bill is stimulating much debate over equality of access to education.

As far as Educate Together is concerned, there are two key elements to this question, only one of which is addressed by the proposed legislation. The right of equity to access to education must always be connected to the right of equality in education.

The Bill aims to create clarity on school admissions’ policies and procedures in Ireland and is to be welcomed. However, it is constitutionally barred from addressing religious discrimination in admissions to schools. It is important to note that the Constitutional barriers in this area are extremely strong. There are extensive protections for the rights of religious bodies and of private property in the Constitution that prevent the State from interfering in the operation of schools set up for a religious purpose. While some may argue that a future amendment limiting the rights of religious bodies in education might succeed, I think very few would suggest that an amendment limiting rights to private property would do so.

However, even if the right to discriminate on religious grounds was eliminated, it would not address the right of equality in education. Having equal access to a faith-based school, privately owned and controlled by a religious body and legally obliged to promote a particular religious world outlook does not address the rights of a child and its family to religious and intellectual freedom. In fact, it may be argued that making it easier for the State to effectively compel families to send their children a Catholic school against their conscience compounds the denial of these rights. The lack of choice for all families remains the fundamental problem.

The shocking reality is that our State has deliberately constructed a publicly-funded education system that is 98% privately-owned and controlled by religious bodies – 93% of which are Catholic. Throughout the last century, the State opted not to own the sites and buildings for the schools it has funded. This means that in nine out of ten locations in the country, a State, that commits itself to the concept of parental preference, only provides for privately-owned Catholic schools. The current bill cannot address this issue.

The need for change is overwhelming. Our population is growing and rapidly diversifying in its attitude towards the place of religion in the civic space. Education is increasingly considered as part of this civic space and our civic space is increasingly seen as an enlightened space of equality and rights. This change of attitude is driven by a generation-on-generation change in the indigenous population. Only the breadth of this change has recently been augmented by inward migration of new cultures. This change also includes changes in attitude of devout Catholic families to the role of their church in education. The choices of school available to families simply hasn’t kept pace with these changes. The private-ownership of the system has remained the key obstacle. This has created a growing issue of religious, intellectual and human rights for society at large, which impacts particularly on the children of Irish families who now have minority views.

It is important to note that this diversity and the new, more questioning attitude is massively positive for society. It is a huge national asset. It is bringing forward a new vibrancy of social and cultural interaction. It enlivening our political debate and bringing many institutions to embrace ‘reality-checks’ which will be enormously productive. In schools, it is a fantastic educational resource that is enriching an entire generation of children. It is also stimulating wide community debate and a fresh and long-overdue questioning of many outmoded social and political attitudes.

In many areas where there is pressure on school places and no choice of an Educate Together school, an increasing number of Irish parents consider that it is necessary to get their children baptised in the Catholic faith in order to access publicly funded schools. For this to have any currency in a modern democratic state is extraordinary and utterly unacceptable. It is deeply corrupting of public morals and personal integrity and strikes to the heart of the social values long affirmed in our national documents. It is neither fair nor right that many parents find that they are at the bottom of the queue or completely off it when they seek a place for their child at the only publicly-funded primary schools in their area.

Equality in education is a fundamental human right. It has been valued, aspired to and fought for by people all over the world and for generations. This right is internationally recognised under a variety of treaties to which Ireland is a signatory. It is also a core value articulated many times in Irish history. The commitment to “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”1 was specifically written into the Proclamation of the Republic whose 100th anniversary we will be celebrating next year. The use of the term “cherishing” is extraordinary. It is a deeply caring term which includes not only access to schools but also equality in the delivery of education itself. Equality in education requires schools that delivery equality of esteem to children irrespective of their social, cultural or religious identity. In the modern world this means schools that operate with the same standards of ethical education programmes and commitment to equality as has been pioneered over the last thirty years by the Educate Together movement. This model of education is open to all and freely available to the Irish State.

Educate Together is proposing that the solution would be a choice of schools in all communities. A move to build a network of schools that provide the same type of guarantees of equality of access and esteem as does the Educate Together model is an affordable and realistic solution. It can be achieved by a combination of agreed transfers of patronage and building of new schools. It will realise what value we place on intellectual and religious freedom and a safeguard of the individual rights of children and families. Educate Together is calling for a national consensus to build such a network. Properly aligned with national planning strategy, this network could be established over the next thirty years. It would ensure that every family in Ireland had access to a school in which the identity of their children was guaranteed equality of esteem within thirty minutes travel time in the morning. It will be an appropriate implementation of the commitment in the 1916 proclamation.

Paul has been involved with Educate Together schools for the past 26 years, as a parent, activist, board member and national representative. He is passionately interested in building organisations that release the full human potential of their members and sees Educate Together as an example of good practice in this area. He has been closely involved in the current efforts to establish a national network of Educate Together primary schools and to apply the principles of the Educate Together Charter to secondary education. In June 2002, he was appointed CEO of Educate Together.