Burton moves Labour’s School Admissions Bill to combat religious exclusion

21 June 2016


Children benefit from meeting and getting to know children from various backgrounds and religions. Diversity in our schools is an opportunity for our society, not something we should feel threatened by. All members of this house will have heard the anecdotal evidence of parents feeling forced to baptise their children to secure a school place. I find it unlikely that any member of this House would deny that this must come to an end.

There is a clear tension between provisions in the Constitution that impact on schools admission policy. On the one hand, the Constitution makes it clear that the State is entitled to fund denominational schools and that those schools are entitled to provide religious instruction during the school day.

On the other hand, the Constitution requires that legislation on State aid for schools must not prejudice the right of any child to attend a State-funded school without attending religious instruction at that school.

As Mister Justice Donal Barrington described it in the Supreme Court, if a school accepts public funds then any child, no matter what his or her religion, is entitled to attend it and has the right not to attend any course of religious instruction at the school.

It is for us as legislators to strike an appropriate balance between the right of a school to reserve places for members of its own faith, and preserve its denominational ethos, and the right of a child to attend any State-funded school and to avoid religious instruction there.

When a denominational school accepts State funding, it must accept that aid is not given unconditionally. It must be prepared to accept pupils from other denominations or none, and to have separate secular and religious instruction.

This Bill does not seek to destroy the ethos of denominational schools. But it does seek to impose conditions for State funding that reflect the requirements of the Constitution. It is proposed by the Labour Party because the Government has already made clear that they have no intention of legislating in this area.

Under our proposals, a denominational school’s preference for one religion would only be accommodated to the extent that it is demonstrably needed, by reference to actual circumstances, in order to meet the demand for denominational education in its catchment area.

At present, education is largely exempted from the Equal Status Act 2000, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion. The Act says that a school can absolutely refuse to admit a child on religious grounds if the school can prove that the refusal is essential to maintain the school’s ethos. That is a hard case to prove and is not much used in practice. We don’t propose to change this provision.

The Act also says that any denominational school can give ‘preference’ to children of its own denomination. There is no test of necessity and no proof required at all. And this exemption applies to every school, whether or not State-funded.

The present law sanctions a preferential admissions policy that admits students from outside the school’s catchment area in preference to those of a different religion or none who live in the neighbourhood. Such policies run the risk of depriving more and more non-Catholic children of education in their own neighbourhoods.

So, the purpose of this Bill is to amend the Equal Status Act and redress the imbalance between the right to maintain denominational schools and the rights of children to receive a secular education in a State-funded school.

Under our Bill, a State-funded denominational school can have a preferential admission policy only if it is proved that the policy is essential in order to ensure reasonable access to education for the children of that denomination within its catchment area, in accordance with the conscience and lawful preference of their parents. Once that need is met, the school cannot continue to prefer its own co-religionists, to fill up the remaining places.

Our Bill also states that, in deciding whether an admission policy or a refusal is proved to be ‘essential’, due regard must be had to the constitutional right of any child to attend a State-funded school without attending religious instruction, and also to the concomitant obligation that every such school should be so organised as to enable that right to be enjoyed.

This change would give effect to the principle that, if the local State-funded school is the only reasonably available school and it is a denominational school then, notwithstanding its religious ethos, the secular and religious instruction in that school must be severable, so as to enable a child to attend that school without receiving religious instruction. Otherwise, the school should not qualify for public money.

Local children should have access to their local schools, because local schools serve as the centre of our communities.

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