School admissions policy under UN spotlight
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will question a Government delegation on Ireland’s record regarding children’s rights on 14 January.
Their agenda is a broad one and it includes the issue of school admissions and religion.
Specifically, the UN wants to know what measures are being taken to ensure children are not denied a school place on religious grounds. It also wants to know about measures taken to ensure children have the right to opt-out of religious classes and/or attend alternatives.
The UNCRC has already alerted the Government to the areas it will be inquiring into. In October it received the Government’s written responses to its questions.
Section 5 of that document provides answers to the two questions posed above, relating to access to schools and freedom of conscience.
The Government’s response matches exactly my dictionary’s definition of obfuscation.
The UN committee may feel somewhat reassured when they read that in its Equal Status Act “Ireland has strong legislative protection against discrimination on nine grounds including religious belief”.
But let’s hope committee members know that 98% of Irish Primary schools, and very many second-level ones, are exempt from this provision because they are religious run.
They include the schools who are turning unbaptised children away, or obliging children to remain in religious education classes, whether they want to or not.
The Government’s response does mention this exemption but it’s in no way clear in its response that this exemption applies to the vast majority of schools here.
The UN committee may be heartened to read that an Admission to Schools Bill has been published which proposes to introduce “a number of important changes to make enrolment policies fairer and more transparent”.
Ireland’s submission goes on to state that “the bill … aims to create a more parent-friendly, equitable and consistent approach to how school admissions policies should operate for all … schools”.
What the submission does not say is that this bill would make no difference to parents seeking to have their unbaptised child enrolled in their local school.
And don’t take my word for that. Here’s what Minister Jan O’Sullivan said about her bill last month: “It is clear”, she said, “that this bill will only go some of the way to addressing [these] issues.”
Ms O’Sullivan went on to acknowledge that the Admissions bill did not include any legislative amendments to deal with the issue of schools turning away children who are not baptised. “I accept”, she said, “that the current position cannot and should not be maintained.”
Finally, the Government tells the UN committee that “the ongoing Patronage Divestment process creates greater primary school choice for parents”.
But it doesn’t tell the committee that so far just two Catholic primary schools have been divested under this process.
It doesn’t tell the committee that a recent attempt to provide choice for parents in Co Mayo, for example, failed because the school building offered for multi-denominational use by the Catholic church was a long abandoned one, in a remote area, miles from any centre of population. (The Government saw nothing wrong with this offer, and reacted angrily when it was rejected as completely unsuitable by the multi-denominational patron that was expected to take it on.)
The Irish delegation, led by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs James Reilly, will address and be questioned by the UN committee all day.
The issue of schools and religion will be dealt with in the afternoon. The Government’s latest submission can be found here.