Friday, February 24, 2017

Is it wrong parents must baptise a child to get them into a school? (Opinion)

LAST September, Jodie Neary, her partner, Enda, and their two young daughters moved from their home in South County Dublin to Greystones, a village in Wicklow, to secure school places at a local primary school for their two-and-a-half-year-old twins, Evyie and Mia.

“My partner and myself are not religious and we didn’t have the children baptised,” says Jodie, a parliamentary assistant at Leinster House.

Entry to most of the schools in their previous neighbourhood was heavily over-subscribed and schools were using the ‘baptism barrier’ to deal with an overwhelming demand for classroom places — this allows schools to give priority enrollment to children of their religious faith.

Although both little girls’ names were put down for entry lists to a number of primary schools across Dublin, the couple were told they were at the bottom of the list.

“The State school are very over-subscribed and we knew the baptistic issue would be used,” Jodie says.

Even schools where religion is not an issue are hugely over-subscribed, “simply because there is such demand in certain areas.” So they moved to Greystones, where Jodie had put the girls’ names down for the local Educate Together school.

“Because we are non-religious, our children are affected, in terms of access to education — we had to move house to find a place that would take our children and I feel that, at least, we are privileged enough to be able to move — I’ve got friends who cannot move and they’re facing a similar situation, where they may have to baptise their child.

“We were able to pick up our stuff and move to another location, and thereby become eligible to access school places for our children.”

Last week, EQUATE, an organisation that campaigns for a school system that reflects the diversity of Irish families, said that a quarter of parents agreed in a study that they would not have baptised their child if they hadn’t had to gain entry to a school. 

Of the 400 people questioned, 72% agreed that the law should be changed, so that baptism can no longer be a requirement for school admission to state-funded schools.

“We have an extraordinary primary school system, in which 96% of primary schools are maintained by religious orders and most of them are Catholic schools — in five counties alone, parents have no option but to send children to religious-run primary schools, which are publicly funded,” said EQUATE’s director, Michael Barron.

“Within that system, we have an extraordinary situation, where religious-run schools are allowed to give preference in admission to pupils of their own religion, above children of other, or no, religious persuasion.” 

Because of the baptism ban, Mr Barron said, children are not getting places in their local school and are driving long distances to another school, or are in limbo about getting a school place. “We have been holding community meetings across the country — parents are coming to the meetings and discussing their anxiety and stress.”

Parents, he said, are baptising their children to get them into schools, even if they hadn’t wanted to baptise them. “It’s asking people to go against their own beliefs, in order to access a school system,” he said.

“Irish people are proud of our schools. At EQUATE, we have been holding public meetings across the country and this pride is clear from our conversations with parents and communities.

“At these community meetings, we also hear that parents want changes in our schools and that a system that might once have reflected our lives no longer matches the reality of the diversity of our children and families in a modern, pluralist Ireland,” Mr Barron said.

Last year, the UN Committee on the rights of the child recommended that the State provide accessible options for children to opt out of religious classes and access appropriate alternatives, in accordance with the needs of children of minority faith or non-faith backgrounds. 

It also wanted the Government to significantly increase the number of non-denominational or multi-denominational schools and amend the existing legislative framework to eliminate discrimination in school admissions. 

Education Minister, Richard Bruton, has begun a consultation process to look at the possibility of ending the so called ‘baptism barrier’.

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