Fine Gael have been accused of attacking parish-owned schools in a bid to distract from Government failures to tackle overcrowding in Ireland’s primary schools.
Addressing a seminar organised by a campaigning group opposed to religion playing a role in school admissions, Education Minister Richard Bruton announced plans to abolish the so-called ‘baptism rule’ that allows oversubscribed schools to favour children from families that share their ethos over other children.
Since faith-based schools are established to fulfil the wishes of parents who want to choose a religiously-based education for their child, the law currently allows such schools to prioritise these children when there are too few places to meet demand.
The minister told the Equate seminar he believes the current situation is unfair. Mr Bruton did not address the fact that the issue only arises where the Department of Education provides for too few places.
Independent TD Mattie McGrath said Mr Bruton was attempting “to divert attention away from the complete failure of his government and his department with respect to addressing the issue of over-subscribed schools”.
The Tipperary TD said it was “far easier to characterise the rights of denominational schools as obstructive rather than face the real issue of funding for the construction of so called ‘stand-alone’ state schools”.
The minister’s proposal ignored how the Department of Education’s own pilot survey on divestment found “no significant grassroots push” for religious patronage of schools to cease, he added, saying the proposal was continuing an “assault on denominational schools”.
While broadly welcoming the minister’s proposal for a consultation on schools admissions policies, the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) denied that Catholic schools require baptismal certificates for entry, and called on the Government to tackle the issue of a shortage of school places.
Oversubscription is the real problem in Ireland’s primary schools, CPSMA General Secretary Seamus Mulconry said, especially in some parts of Dublin and the commuter belt.
“It’s an issue narrowly-focused on areas where there is very high demand – it tends to be very, very localised,” he told The Irish Catholic, adding, “one school received 402 applications for 208 places. It doesn’t matter what you do with the admissions policy, you’re going to have a lot of disappointed people.”
Warning that the oversubscription problem is set to increase in coming years, he called for the department to address this as a matter of urgency, with a view to increasing the number of school places available.
“This is a much bigger issue for our colleagues in the Church of Ireland and in the Reformed tradition, and I was really surprised at how blasé Equate were on this issue,” he added.
Pointing out that Protestant schools are at the heart of their communities, he said. “Everybody needs to be really careful that somebody who’s taking a pot-shot at Catholic schools doesn’t end up shooting the Protestants by mistake so they end up as collateral damage.”