Thursday, 6 July 2017
Department of Education and Skills
46. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the way in which ending religious discrimination in school admissions can be achieved; his further views on changes to the way in which religious instruction is taught to ensure there is no religious discrimination in the course of a school day; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31795/17]
As the Deputy will be aware, earlier this year, I ran a public consultation process on the role of denominational religion in the school admission process and possible approaches for making changes, to which I received almost 1,000 submissions.
On Monday 29 May 2017 I held a public Forum on the role of religion in primary school admissions, which was attended by over 120 individuals.
Under the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which last week passed committee stage, schools which are not oversubscribed will have to accept all applicants . This means that religion will not be used in admissions to 80% of schools, and in fact this is already the practice in most schools.
It is in the 20% other schools that this issue now needs to be addressed. My preference is to remove the capacity for state-funded denominational primary schools, where they are oversubscribed, to use religion as a criteria in admissions process except, in three scenarios:
- where it would not otherwise be possible to maintain the ethos of the school;
- where the school is established by a minority religion, in order to ensure that students of that religion can find a school place in a school of that ethos;
- where the school is established by a minority religion, in order to admit a student of that religion who resides in a community consistently served by that school.
As I have said recently, my intention is to introduce more detailed proposals on this in the autumn, with a view to having them enacted by the end of 2017, depending on the process in the Oireachtas.
With regard to attending religious instruction, under the Constitution children have a right to attend school without attending religious instruction. Parents therefore have a right to have their children opt out of religion classes and it is expected that this right will be upheld by schools on foot of a parental request. This applies at both primary and post primary levels.
The Education (Admission to Schools) 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. 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.
In terms of the practical arrangements by which schools ensure that the right to opt out of religion classes is accommodated, these are a matter for each individual school.
I am aware that on occasion there can be practical issues around supervision and arranging class times and these have to be considered by schools at local level and worked through in a pragmatic way. Circumstances vary from school to school and from primary to post-primary. The precise nature of the arrangements therefore have to be considered by each school having regards to the particular circumstances in question including factors such as the numbers of children involved, the ages of those children and the availability of staff and physical space in the school concerned.
The Catholic Schools Partnership developed in 2015 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 and gives practical suggestions to schools in how to engage positively in inter-cultural dialogue.
In my view, the best way of dealing with this matter to the satisfaction of whole school community is by schools communicating with parents to ascertain what their wishes are in this regard. As the Deputy may be aware, a key aspect of the Parents and Students Charter Bill concerns how schools communicate with parents and this may provide a more appropriate opportunity for dealing with this particular issue.