Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s pledge to remove the “Baptism barrier” from access to Catholic schools is a sign that the firm grip of religious bodies on education is being slowly loosened.
It is also a belated recognition that our education system needs to catch up with the reality of modern life.
Publicly-funded schools are legally permitted to discriminate against students in their admission policies based on their religion. In a system where 90 per cent of schools are under the patronage of Catholic bodies, it means non-religious or minority faith children can be denied access to their local school.
Yet, more than a third of marriages nowadays are civil rather then religious and census figures indicate that about a fifth of families of parenting age describe themselves as non-religious.
The result is that as many as a quarter of parents, according to surveys, have baptised their children simply to gain access to their local school,
Against this backdrop, Bruton’s plan to remove the “Baptism barrier” from entry to Catholic schools is significant.
It means most non-religious families will be able to access their local State-funded primary school on the same basis as other citizens.
It is also an indication of the waning influence of the Catholic Church, which has opposed such a move.
Catholic schools will now, in effect, be unable to use religion as a factor in any of its admissions policies.
The loudest argument against the removal of the “Baptism barrier” was made by minority faiths such as the Church of Ireland who feared their ethos would be under threat. Mr Bruton’s pledge to allow minority faiths to continue to use religion in their admission policies is likely to ease most of their anxiety.
There are many who will argue that religion should be tossed out altogether from admissions policies.
owever, competing articles of the Constitution – which protect both the right to religious education and protect against religious discrimination – mean that this is unlikely anytime soon.
The question of how big an issue the “Baptism barrier” really is is itself a hotly contested topic.
ESRI research has indicated that about 20 per cent of schools are oversubscribed, while the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association says it is only an issue in a relatively small number of schools in the greater Dublin area.
Catholic schools, the majority of whom accept everyone who applies, may well feel aggrieved and singled out under the plans. But with control over 90 per cent of the primary school system, it is difficult to make the argument that they are being victimised in any real sense.
One thing seems certain: Bruton’s plans are not the end of the story when it comes to reducing the hold of religious bodies on our schools.
For one thing, it sill involves navigating a complex array of legal landmines before they are made law. There may well be Constitutional challenges coming down the line.
Assuming the “Baptism barrier” is removed for Catholic schools, it is certain the focus of equality campaigners will simply move on to the place of religious instruction during the school day and the transfer of patronage away from Catholic bodies.