Labour Bill builds on progress made in Government

28 June 2016

Labour bill builds on progress made in government

Speaking in Dail Eireann on Equal Status (Admission To Schools Bill)

The Bill being debated this evening builds on progress the Labour Party has made on Equality issues when we had the opportunity in Government recently and in the 1990’s.

When Dick Spring gave Equality a place at the cabinet table in 1992 he put equality issues at the centre of the political agenda.  Mervyn Taylor, as Minister introduced 2 pioneering pieces of legislation, the Equal Status Act and the Employment Equality Act and they have formed the bedrock of progress on eradicating discrimination across many areas of Irish life.

Our next opportunity to make a difference in Government came after the 2011 election when we ensured that a referendum on  Marriage  Equality was put in the programme for Government and the people of Ireland opened their hearts and made it a reality.  That’s the most obvious example but there was also significant progress made in opening up our Education system to the reality of an Irish society much more diverse than was provided for in the school system that had evolved since the foundation of the State.

One of the first things Ruairi Quinn did when he became Minister for Education and Skills in 2011 was to establish the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism.  As a result of its recommendations a system of consulting parents was established wherever a new school was to be provided so that there would be a wider choice of options in that particular area; a programme of divestment from denominational to multi-denominational  ethos commenced as well as measures to make individual schools more inclusive of diversity.   There has been a 43% increase in the number of multi-denominational schools and a 54% increase in the number of children attending such schools since 2011.  When I became Minister, I continued the work Ruairi had started and last December, implemented another of the recommendations of the Forum by revoking Rule 68 which placed religious instruction as the most important subject in schools, irrespective of their ethos.

Joan has outlined the background to this Bill both in terms of the Constitutional provisions and the historic development of schools in Ireland and there is a balance to be achieved. 

Evidence is emerging of a practice that is extremely disturbing.  It is reported that parents are having their children baptised into a religious faith they don’t believe in so as to get them into the local school.  There is something fundamentally wrong about that.  This Bill is drafted to address the reason why some parents feel forced to take such a course.

It is true that 80% of schools are not oversubscribed and the issue doesn’t arise for parents applying to those schools.  However, where there is a demand that exceeds the number of places, the current situation allows for a school’s admissions policy to give priority to children of the denomination of the school who live outside the catchment area ahead of local children of other denominations or none.  This is where the “baptism of convenience” issue arises.

I do want to clarify that catchment does not automatically mean the local parish; in the case of a minority religion, it could, in some cases, cover a number of counties.  We want to make it absolutely clear that this Bill is carefully drafted in order to respect and protect the right of minority religions to protect the ethos of their schools.

Some people in this chamber and outside of it will feel this Bill doesn’t go far enough.  Others may be satisfied with the status quo.  I would urge, however, that you would all support it as a balanced measure that will bring fairer access for children to their local school and develop on the progress already made in making Ireland a more inclusive place for children, irrespective of their background.

Children benefit from meeting and getting to know classmates from various backgrounds and religions.  Diversity in our schools is an opportunity for our society, not something we should feel threatened by.

For that reason, it is extremely disappointing  to be told, this evening that a Government amendment will push this issue, on top of so many others that need decisive action, into the distant future, depriving many families of access to their local school.  Far from New Politics, this has become the ‘Do Nothing Dáil’.

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