Dáil debates

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

School Enrolments

5:30 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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7. To ask the Taoiseach if the end to baptism barriers for school entry was discussed when he last met church leaders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43468/15]

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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8. To ask the Taoiseach the discussions he has had with church leaders and others regarding the practice of parents having to get their children baptised in order to gain entry to the school of their choice; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3918/16]

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.

Like public representatives generally, I often meet religious and non-religious leaders informally in the course of attending official and public events. In addition, I meet representatives of religious and other philosophical bodies through a formal structured dialogue process which provides a channel for consultation and communication between the State and such bodies on matters of mutual concern. These meetings may be sought by either side on the basis of a proposed agenda, agreed in advance of the meeting. The arrangements for such meetings are made by my Department. The process does not of course displace arrangements for the conduct of policy and administration by Departments and agencies in their functional responsibilities.

I have reported to the House on all the meetings I have held under the structured dialogue process in replies to parliamentary questions on 16 April and 10 December 2013, 1 July 2014 and 20 January and 30 June 2015.

Education was an agenda item when I met representatives of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland in January and April 2013, respectively, but the issue of baptism and admission policies was not discussed. When I met representatives of the Jewish community in June 2015, access to education was discussed and, in particular, problems being experienced by members of the Jewish community in accessing education for their children, particularly at primary school level. While not categorised as meetings with church leaders, access to education was also discussed when I met representatives of the Humanist Association of Ireland in January 2015 and of Atheist Ireland in February 2015 under the structured dialogue process.

The Minister for Education and Skills accompanied me to the meetings with representatives from the Jewish community, the Humanist Association of Ireland and Atheist Ireland and led the discussions about education with them.

While this is primarily a matter for the Minister to address, I can confirm that on each occasion she referred to existing equality legislation which permits the protection of the "religious ethos" of a school, if it is oversubscribed. This allows schools, where the objective is to provide education in an environment that promotes certain religious values, to require the production of a baptismal certificate to secure enrolment. She also referred to the introduction of the education (admissions to schools) Bill, which aims to provide an over-arching framework for admissions policy in a manner which is fairer and more structured and transparent.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. He is very fond of talking about some anniversaries. As he is aware, it will soon be five years since the first Minister for Education and Skills in this Government announced that 50% of schools would change patronage in 2012. That is another example of a government that has rushed out with announcements irrespective of what was prepared or agreed. The Government decided to take a confrontational approach to this issue and, as a result, progress has been set back by years. We went from a position where the largest diocese in the country was prepared to transfer half of its schools to other patrons to one where only a handful have been transferred. A great deal of time and effort have been wasted on a pointless conflict. I have no doubt that we can agree a means of respect for diversity in our schools and that we can get all patrons to sign up to this but we need a formal end to the policy of pandering to some imagined gallery with empty tough talk about existing patrons. The initiative of former Minister, Deputy Quinn, initiative got nowhere.

I am surprised that the Taoiseach did not discuss the baptism issue with the churches, in particular the Catholic Church, because outside Dublin most schools are aghast at the idea that baptism would be used as a barrier to enrolment. It should be a commonly agreed principle that baptism would not be used as a basis for denying someone admission to the local school. I have been in many Catholic and Church of Ireland schools where people of many faiths and none attend. It is not beyond the Minister or the Government to ensure that principle is applied, that baptism is not a barrier to enrolment because that would offend anyone’s sense of basic decency and common sense or the sense of inclusivity in a parish or community. All those living adjacent to or near a school should have access to that school.

I note that the Taoiseach referred to the education (admissions to schools) Bill. That will not be brought forward before the Dáil dissolves. I am not sure if it is the intention of the parties that make up the current Government to continue to champion that Bill, which was not the correct response to the issue.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I concur with everything Deputy Martin has said about this. We cannot have a situation where somebody who lives adjacent to a school cannot get into that school because he or she is not of a particular religious ethos. It is not acceptable in this day and age. The Government is forcing parents to either move to a school 6 km or 7 km away in some cases, or to get their child baptised. No modern society should treat education in that way. The Minister has talked about this. All the Opposition parties have produced legislation to abolish the section in the Act. The Government said it would deal with it under the education (admissions to schools) Bill, which was not even published. This must be addressed today.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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An dtuigeann an Taoiseach go bhfuil fadhb mhór annso agus an dtuigeann sé go bhfuil an-mhíshástacht i measc an-chuid daoine maidir leis an smacht atá fós ag na heaglaisí i gcúrsaí oideachais agus ins na scoileanna? An dtuigeann sé go bhfuil an-chuid gnáthdhaoine nach féidir leo leanaí a chur chuig scoil gan a bheith páirteach i gcúrsaí reiligiúin ins an scoil agus go bhfuil sé sin ag cur as d'an-chuid daoine? Dá bhrí sin, cad é polasaí an Taoisigh dáiríre maidir leis an bhfadhb seo?

An bhfuil sé i bhfábhar chóras oideachais nach bhfuil faoi smacht aon reiligiúin agus scoileanna nach bhfuil faoi smacht aon reiligiúin ach atá oscailte, atá á rith go daonlathach, gur féidir le gach leanbh dul ann, is cuma má tá creideamh acu nó nach bhfuil, oideachas a fháil? Ansan, má theastaíonn ó na tuismitheoirí gur féidir reiligiúin a fhoghlaim dosna leanaí, d'fhéadfaí é sin a dhéanamh ins an scoil fhéinig ar leataobh ach gan go mbeadh sé riachtanach dosna leanaí chun teacht isteach ins an scoil ar an gcéad lá?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Tá a fhios ag an Teachta go bhfuil níos mó ná 3,000 scoil ar fud na tíre agus gur leo an Eaglais Chaitliceach an chuid is mó dóibh siúd. Is é an tArdeaspag Ó Máirtín féin a dúirt liom go raibh an iomarca scoileanna ag an Eaglais agus gur mhiste leis go mbeadh cuid acu siúd curtha amach i dtreo is go mbeadh daoine in ann oibriú leo gan creideamh faoi leith a bheith á múineadh sa scoil sin, ach ag an am céanna go mbeadh sé láncheart go mbeadh scoileanna faoi leith ag an Eaglais Chaitliceach ina mbeadh an creideamh sin á múineadh dosna daltaí.

In response to the question on baptismal certificates, it is the responsibility of the managerial authority of all schools to ensure that their premises are run in accordance with the Education Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. Parents can choose which school to send their children to and where the school has available places, the pupils should be admitted. Where there are more applicants than places available, a selection process may be necessary. That selection process, and the enrolment policy on which it is based, have to be non-discriminatory and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants. This may result in some pupils not achieving a place.

I agree with the Deputies that a baptismal certificate should not be the criterion but Catholic schools accommodate all applications, regardless of religion or none when there is room available to do so.

This is about common sense. The phenomenon of pupils being unable to secure a place of their choice occurs only where there is an oversubscription to a particular school. Baptismal certificates may be used by Catholic and Protestant patrons in these circumstances to demonstrate denomination so that oversubscribed schools with a particular religious ethos can offer places to pupils within the denomination.

Everybody is aware of the Educate Together movement which obviously provides an opportunity for many of the parents, who have an issue here, to send their children to school. From an historical point of view, if there are three or four Catholic schools in a location, it is difficult to get parents or boards of management to agree that a particular school should be divested to any other patronage. That is an issue that always requires some sensitive discussions. The vast majority of schools that are Catholic do not discriminate in the sense of the religious ethos of any pupils who might go there except where there is overcrowding and they have to make a choice.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.