Tuesday, 22 November 2016
Department of Education and Skills
I propose to takes Questions Nos. 209 and 237 together.
In relation to the first question raised by the Deputies regarding the ‘baptism barrier’, the Deputies will be aware, that the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills, is to consider the complex issues raised by the Labour Party's proposed amendment to section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act as set out in their Private Members Bill.
I have included a specific action in the Action Plan for Education that expresses my commitment to working with the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills to deliver changes in this area.
The Government proposed and the Dáil agreed that the Equal Status Bill proceed to second stage in June 2017. This will allow parents, patrons and other stakeholders to have their say and to ensure that the right balance can be struck between competing rights and that there would be no unintended consequence that would create an adverse impact on the schools of minority denominations.
I believe that this matter requires time to allow adequate scrutiny and debate in order to ensure any new approach is reasonable, fair and workable. I believe that the work of the Education and Skills Committee will be invaluable in that regard.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 does not propose any changes to section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act and I propose to advance the Admissions Bill separately from the issues before the Committee.
As I have said previously, I believe that this is the correct way to proceed. In this way, we can ensure that the important pragmatic changes contained in the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill can be implemented as quickly as possible, and not be tied up with contentious issues that could end up in the Courts. At the same time, we can in this way give the time and space for the complex issues involved in the Equal Status Bill to be properly teased out.
It is also important to note that even if the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 is enacted by the Oireachtas in the coming months it cannot apply in respect of admissions in September next as schools have already begun that process.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 provides an over-arching framework for greater transparency and consistency in school enrolment generally and thereby gives greater confidence to parents that the admission criteria laid down by schools and the procedures used by them are legitimate, reasonable and fair. The following is an outline of some of its key provisions:
- The Education Admissions Bill will bring tangible benefits to all parents. The Bill will oblige all schools to admit pupils where there are available places. It is important to note that 80% of schools are not oversubscribed.
- The Bill provides for schools to explicitly state in the school's admission policy that it will not discriminate against an applicant for admission on the grounds of disability, special educational needs, sexual orientation, family status, membership of the traveller community, race, civil status, gender or religion while including provision for single sex schools and denominational schools to reflect, in their admission policy, the exemptions applicable to such schools under equality legislation.
- The Bill includes a specific requirement that school enrolment policies must include details of the school's arrangements for any students who do not wish to attend religious instruction.
- The Bill contains a provision prohibiting the charging of fees or seeking payment or contributions for an application for admission to a school or for the enrolment or continued enrolment of a student in a school.
- The Bill also provides for the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) to designate a school for a child with no school place and for the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to designate a school for a child who has no school place for reasons related to the child’s special educational needs.
In relation to the second question raised by the Deputies regarding opting out of faith formation, Article 44 of the Constitution and Section 30 of the Education Act 1998 provides that parents have a right to have their children opt out of religion classes if they so wish. The manner in which any school ensures that the right to opt out of religion classes is upheld is a matter for the school concerned.
Each individual school must determine the particular arrangements which are most appropriate in its individual circumstances having regard to local issues such as available space, supervision requirements and how the school concerned organises classes etc.
The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the primary school sector (2012) recommended steps that could be taken to ensure that the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools to cater for children of all religions and none.
A paper, entitled "Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector: Progress to Date and Future Directions", which took account of the public consultation, was published in 2014. The paper outlined good practice and options for promoting diversity in schools in a number of areas, including the right to opt-out of religious classes.
The paper gives an overview of current practice in schools in relation to the right to opt-out of religious classes and acknowledged that each school should arrive at solutions that suit its own particular context and to engage in dialogue with parents about the arrangements to be put in place before the child starts school. Schools are encouraged to develop their own practices and policies in this regard.
Subsequently, the Catholic Schools Partnership (2015) developed a resource for Catholic schools entitled ‘Catholic Primary Schools in a Changing Ireland: Sharing Good Practice on Inclusion of All Pupils’. It gives suggestions on developing polices and sharing best practice with regard to inclusion of all pupils, which gives practical suggestions to schools in how to engage positively in inter-cultural dialogue.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 includes a specific requirement that school enrolment policies must include details of the school's arrangements for any students who do not wish to attend religious instruction.
I believe this is an important measure which will help ensure transparency from the outset as to how a school will uphold the rights of parents in this regard.
The Department has also been working on draft legislation to provide for replacing the current Section 28 of the Education Act, 1998. The legislation will provide the statutory basis for ministerial guidelines which will form the framework for a Parents’ and Students’ Charter in every school following consultation with parents, students, recognised school management bodies and staff associations representing teachers and other appropriate bodies.
The Parents and Students Charter Bill essentially deals with how schools communicate with parents and will provide a greater opportunity for dealing with such issues.