22 February 2016

For the Labour Party, equality is the keystone of what we believe.

Throughout this campaign, I have been making a clear point – only Labour will deliver greater equality.

Achieving this must start with delivering equality of opportunity.

A key question in this election is how we ensure every child has the best possible start in life.

To ensure every child has equality of opportunity, to ensure every child has the chance to achieve in life, equal access to school is vital.

And the new schools built across the country by Labour in Government are central to this purpose.

New school buildings aren’t reflected in child poverty statistics – but in the long-term, they change children’s lives for the better. 

Over the last five years, the work we have done to build greater equality in education is significant.

In 2011, Ruairí Quinn established the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the primary school sector – one of his first acts as minister.

Since then, we have seen an increase of over 40% in the number of multi-denominational schools across Ireland.

We recognised Educate Together as a second-level patron for the first time.

And we published an Admission to Schools Bill that will make school admissions fair and transparent.

But while we have made a lot of progress, there is still a lot left to do.

Our proposals in this area are significant, but realistic.

We will continue to provide new schools in areas where the population is increasing.

We will also speed up the process of reorganising schools in areas where parents have demanded change.

And we will fund this work through the establishment of a €10m annual fund to support the work of patron bodies, and to invest in the capital work needed to make change a reality.

In total, we will deliver 100 new multi-denominational schools by 2021 – doubling the current number.

And for the longer term, we will publish a White Paper to build on the report of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the primary sector.

Opening more multi-denominational schools is an essential component in delivering greater equality in education.

But it is not the only measure needed.

We also need to make sure that local children can attend local schools, regardless of their background or religious beliefs.

Children benefit from meeting and getting to know children from a variety of backgrounds.

In my own constituency of Dublin West, I see clearly the community strength derived from the integration of children from different backgrounds.

But in parts of Ireland, there is emerging evidence that some parents feel pressured to baptise their children against their own beliefs, just to secure a school place.

That is an unfair situation – for the parents who feel forced into this position, and indeed for the church.

Labour is proposing to bring this situation to an end.

We will amend the Equal Status Act, to ensure that publicly funded schools prioritise children from the local community, rather than focusing on their religion.

It will still be possible for schools to prioritise on the grounds of religion, but only where the ethos of the school might otherwise be diminished.

This is necessary because we believe in a pluralist approach.

We believe that minority faith schools which serve dispersed communities should be preserved and protected.

In the 1990s, Labour convened a National Convention on Education, to get the views of everyone involved in education and set out an agreed agenda for reform and investment.

That Convention led to the drafting of the Education Act which has governed our school sector since 1998.

We believe that now is the right time to repeat that exercise.

So we will establish a new National Convention on Education, to report within 12 months on the long-term priorities for reform and investment in the education sector.

Our approach has been welcomed by those campaigning for change in this area.

EQUATE has argued that the Labour Party proposals are “the first comprehensive education reform plan launched by a political party in this general election campaign”.

Educate Together has noted that only the Labour Party is proposing to make funding available to support a growth in multi-denominational education.

As on many issues, it is clear that only the Labour Party will deliver progressive change.

Only the Labour Party will deliver greater equality.

Only the Labour Party is standing up for Ireland’s future.


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