Tuesday, 8 December 2015
Equality in Education Bill 2015: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to repeal without exception provisions of law allowing for discrimination on religious grounds against children in admissions to school; to mandate the Minister for Education and Skills to modernise the curriculum and to provide for related matters.
The Bill we introduce today seeks to repeal the provisions which allow an educational establishment to discriminate against children on religious grounds, specifically the indefensible discrimination against children contained in section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act.
It is outrageous that people are discriminated against. To attend local schools, most parents are forced to baptise their children for the sole purpose of getting places that are not a 40-minute drive from their homes.
Every week I have been contacted by parents who are active on this issue. Throughout the year, I have also heard from parents who are not activists but ordinary people who want their children to attend their local schools with the kids they play with every day in their estates. It is outrageous that the State-funded education system allows religious discrimination in this manner. Every time the matter has been raised, the Minister has fobbed us off with the response that a programme of divestment of patronage will address it. We have all seen how painfully slow that process is. The Minister's plans for divestment of patronage are not delivering. Even if they provide a diversity of patronage in a small number of areas, we will always be left with a situation in which some children will be prevented from attending their local schools due to religious discrimination.
The Bill that we are introducing will not prevent the teaching of religious studies in the multidenominational sense. Children should be educated on the belief systems of the various world religions in a non-faith-formation setting, just as happens in multidenominational schools. Should parents wish to have their children engage in faith formation or religious ceremonies, that would be their choice, but it should take place outside of normal school hours so that those parents who want their children to opt out can do so.
The separation of church and State must be completed. We must move to a democratically controlled education system that is truly representative of the community, respectful of the rights of people of all religions and none and child-centred. The education system must allow every child to reach his or her full potential and should be universally available as a right. It is essential that we have a school system that is fit for purpose and reflects the diversity of Irish society. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has acknowledged that faith should not be imposed. There is a litany of human rights bodies that have stated that the current system contravenes human rights.
The State has an obligation to ensure that the rights of children and families are respected. This means ensuring that the price of admission to the education system is not opting into religious ceremonies that may go against an individual's religious, philosophical or ethical standpoint. Such a practice does not live up to Article 42.3.1° of the Constitution, which reads: "The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State."
When there is nowhere else to send a child, what can a parent do? Even if parents do not need to christen their children to gain access to their local schools, rule No. 68 is still on the books. It has been applied rigorously, with faith formation permeating many aspects of the curriculum to which it has no business being applied. There is no educational reason for religious terminology to be used in the teaching of primary school maths and English. The public good does not require it.
I recognise that the Bill does not do everything that is necessary to rectify the indefensible control that the religious orders have over the school system, but I introduce it as a genuine initiative to begin a dialogue on the matter. For this reason, I urge the Minister of State to allow it to proceed to Second Stage.