Paula Kearns, a South Dublin mother, has struggled to get her three children into schools, because she has chosen not to baptise them.
“It’s just a horribly discriminatory system; you are a citizen of this country, but because of the system, you’re bottom of the list,” Kearns says. “It does affect a lot of people; they just don’t want to talk about it.”
After all, non-Catholic and unbaptised children like Kearns’s have long faced difficulties finding places in primary schools.
When oversubscribed, schools under religious patronage can favour children of their religion. This means many non-religious parents find they cannot get their children into local schools if there’s competition for places.
The percentage of Catholic schools in Dublin is higher than the percentage of Catholic people.
About 84 percent of primary schools in Dublin were Catholic in the 2014-2015 school year, according to Department of Education data. But only about 75 percent of Dublin City residents identified as Catholic in the latest census.
That census was way back in 2011, and the number of Catholics in Dublin has probably fallen since then. So the contingent of non-Catholics seeking places in schools for their children has likely grown.
The natural choice for many non-religious families is an Educate Together school, which upholds a multi-denominational and a co-educational approach. However the growing secular and non-religious demographic in Ireland means that demand for Educate Together school places far exceeds capacity.
Paula Kearns, failing to secure a coveted spot in an Educate Together school, looked to her local Church of Ireland school. “I started looking at the Church of Ireland, because I liked the idea it was co-ed,” she says.
After many stressful months, she was able to get her two oldest sons into the Church of Ireland school, both at the last minute. But this year, she has faced renewed difficulty when looking for a place for her daughter.
“When it came to looking for my daughter there was massive oversubscription, over 60 applicants for 30 places”, says Kearns. “That year they all went to baptised kids . . . they prioritised their own. She was due to start and there was no place anywhere.”
Paula is now facing a situation where her daughter has no school place locally, and must look to schools further and further from their home, or delay starting for a year.
Another choice for non-religious parents is a “pragmatic baptism”: baptising a child simply to secure a school place for them.
“In a lot of cases parents end up baptising their child just to get them into a school,” says April Duff, chairperson of Education Equality. “So they are being forced by the education system to enter into a religion that is contrary to their own beliefs.”
Duff says her organisation has dealt with several parents in this situation. However, they have declined to speak publicly, for fear of potentially negative repercussions against their children within their schools.
Raising the Issue
Education Equality was launched in Dublin last month to end religious discrimination in primary schools. It has targeted the contentious Section 7.3 (c) of the Equal Status Act, the clause that permits such discrimination.
“There is a very plain right in the Constitution not to be discriminated against on the grounds of your religion,” says Duff. “Now, if you’re refused access to a basic public good on account of your religious beliefs or your parent’s religious beliefs, that’s very clearly discrimination.”
Education Equality’s strategy has been to challenge the issue of access to education through both legal and political means. The group has a pro-bono legal team constructing a court challenge grounded in the rights to religious freedom and equal access. Meanwhile, Duff has pursued a political lobbying effort ahead of the general election to push the urgency of legislative change.
“There’s a lot of political will behind us in theory, but when it comes to actually making changes, I suppose the Catholic Church is still very strong in Ireland and the majority are fairly happy with the current system, which makes it very difficult for politicians to act,” says Duff.
Duff says Education Equality has been disappointed by the response of the current government.
“The Labour Party has come out and said it will remove discrimination in school admissions,” she says. “Our question is well why are you saying ‘will’? You’re in government now. This is really urgent, there are parents right now with children who do not have a school place.”
Where the Parties Stand
Labour has held the education portfolio for the course of this government. Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan has maintained that she is in favour of amending the Equal Status Act to allow schools to prioritise local children, rather than ordering enrolment on religious grounds. She has considered allowing only a majority of places be reserved to maintain a school’s ethos.
O’Sullivan’s office defended their reluctance to legislate for this position due to concerns for minority faith schools. Stratford National School in Rathgar, for example, is the only Jewish-faith primary school in Ireland and draws applicants of that faith from across the entire greater Dublin region. O’Sullivan’s hesitation is that if these minority faiths schools had to prioritise local enrolment, their religious ethos would be quickly eroded.
Yet resistance from coalition partners Fine Gael may be the real factor tying Labour’s hands. Fine Gael have not come out in favour of repealing Section 7.3(c). Their official response has been to instead highlight the extensive country-wide building programme of new primary schools, of which 39 out of 42 have a multi-denominational character.
Dun Laoghaire TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor mirrored her party’s non-committal attitude to addressing the issue of discrimination in access to religious schools. Fine Gael’s angle heading into the election then will likely advocate a slower move to a pluralist system of patronage, and one that does not overly encroach against the wishes of “conservative Ireland”.
In contrast, the main political opposition forces have both leaned strongly on an imminent repeal of the contentious section. Sinn Fein’s education spokesperson, Jonathan O’Brien, and the Fianna Fail counterpart, Charlie McConalogue, have regularly criticised Labour’s hesitation in removing the Section from across the floor of the Dail.
The Social Democrats have included ending the discrimination of unbaptised children and removing Section 7.3(c) as a key goal on their reform agenda. One of the party’s co-leaders, Roisin Shorthall of Dublin North-West, stated, “government has a responsibility to ensure that all children can access state-funded school places in their locality.”
Renua have yet to draw up an official policy on the debate, but their Dublin South-Central candidate, Michael Gargan, has said he would remove Section 7.3(c) “as soon as possible”.
At the other end of the spectrum, Socialist Party TD Ruth Coppinger of Dublin West has been an outspoken advocate from the left’s AAA-PBP grouping in opposing the government’s inaction on the issue.
Green Party education spokesperson Catherine Martin, a Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councillor, maintained that “it is clearly wrong to discriminate against four- or five-year-olds on the basis of their parents’ religious or philosophical choices, and for state-funded institutions to do this goes against the values of a republic.”
Is Change Coming?
Most political parties are behind repealing the discriminatory section. But Fine Gael’s hesitation in taking a stance heading into the election may see the issue sidestepped for another five years if they return to government.
The lack of action cannot change soon enough for parents of non-Catholic and non-religious children, many of whom will struggle again, come September, to find their children places in school.
Paula Kearns, however, remains hopeful about the prospects for her daughter and others in her position. “I’m very optimistic that this will change,” she says. “I think it has to.”