Catholic schools may end up using parish boundaries as a way of ensuring that local nonreligious children are not denied school places over baptised children from outside the locality.
The measure is outlined in a new Department of Education consultation document, which explains how options to limit or remove the “baptism barrier” from education could work.
The proposal, if implemented, could have major implications over access to schools in areas such as Dublin which has 199 parishes in the archdiocese.
The issue of access to denominational schools has become a hotly debated one in recent times, given that 95 per cent of State-funded primary schools remain under Catholic Church patronage.
Campaigners say nonbaptised or minority faith children have difficulty accessing their local denominational schools in up to 20 per cent of schools that are oversubscribed.
Under current laws, oversubscribed schools may discriminate against children based on their religion in their admission policies.
Last week, Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced four options aimed at addressing the role of religion in school admissions.
The options are: allowing schools to favour children of their own religion only when those children live within a school’s catchment area, or when that school is their nearest one; a quota-based system; or an outright ban on using religion as a factor in admissions.
The catchment area proposal appears to have attracted the greatest amount of support to date. Political parties such as Fianna Fáil and Labour have proposed similar measures in recent months. Catholic school managers have also proposed similar measures.
The consultation document states that legislative change would be required to underpin a measure based on each religious school having to define a unique catchment area. This legislation, it says, would have to reflect the differences between different denominations and religions.
“For example, there are a very large number of Catholic schools so those schools would serve reasonably small areas,” the document states. “On the other hand, a Church of Ireland school will serve a much larger area. There are two existing Muslim schools in Dublin who potentially would have to divide effectively the greater Dublin area between them.”
It adds: “It would be expected that religious organisations will in many cases base their catchment areas on existing parishes. A related consideration is how to deal with a situation where there are two or more Catholic schools within the Catholic parish, common in urban areas.”
The documents also states that methods may be needed to ensure that religious schools cannot draw their catchment areas artificially large, thereby allowing them fill all their places with children of the same religion.
There would also need to be structures to adjudicate on boundary disputes, according to the document.
“Initial work suggests that these should be adjudicated on by the relevant church or religious authorities, who would have to create either nationally or regionally a process to mediate or adjudicate disputes in relation to borders between schools in question,” the consultation document adds.
Minority faith schools
The document also explores a range of measures that could be used to ensure that minority faith schools such as Church of Ireland are in a position to protect their ethos.
For example, if the option of an outright ban on using religion in admissions is pursued, it notes that minority schools may only be able to admit very few children from their own religion.
In this case, the document suggests that a percentage of places in minority faith schools could be set aside in cases where it is essential to maintain their ethos.
The deadline for receipt of submissions is February 20th at 5pm.
Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.