Draft General Scheme of Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013 does not remove religious discrimination in access to schools.
In September 2013 the government published a Draft General Scheme for an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, as well as Draft Regulations. The proposed Education (Admission to Schools) Bill will not remove religious discrimination in access to schools or provide non discriminatory exemptions that would suit the wishes of parents.
The UN Committee on the rights of the child has said that religious discrimination whether it is overt or hidden, offends the human dignity of the child and is capable of undermining or even destroying the capacity of the child to benefit from educational opportunities. All discriminatory practices are in direct contradiction with the requirements of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that education be directed to the development of the Child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.
Under this Bill Atheist and Secular parents will still be legally obliged to send their children to schools that discriminate on religious grounds. The vast majority of schools at both primary and second level operate with a religious ethos/religious objectives and can legally discriminate on religious grounds. These schools are all publicly funded and the majority operate under Catholic patronage. Many Education and Training Board schools (VEC) and colleges also operate with a religious ethos under agreements with the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. The Department of Education & Skills as the Patron Body of the nine state Model Schools also support religious discrimination in access to these primary schools.
The Catholic Church as the Patron Body of the majority of publicly funded National Schools has stated that:-
“The Catholic Church is committed to providing Catholic schools to cater for the needs of parents who wish their children to have a Catholic education. Therefore the children of Catholic parents have first claim on admission to Catholic schools. Wherever possible, in keeping with their ethos, and provided that they have places and resources, Catholic schools welcome children of other faiths or none.”
When the Catholic Church refers to Catholic schools they are of course speaking about publicly funded National Schools. It is clear that the Draft General Scheme of an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013 will continue to support religious discrimination and it is ridiculous to claim that this Bill is about inclusion or that this government is committed to supporting the human rights of children. This Bill states that:-
“The Head reinforces the principle of maximum accessibility to and inclusiveness in recognised schools but does not displace the existing exemptions provided to schools under Sections 7(3) (a) and 7(3) (c) of the Equal Status Act, 2000. Section 7(3) (a) provides that a single sex school may refuse admission to a pupil who is not of the gender concerned. Section 7(3) (c) provides that schools where the objective is to provide education in an environment that promotes certain religious values, can admit a student of a particular religious denomination in preference to other students or that such a school can refuse to admit a student who is not of that denomination, provided it can prove that this refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school. The Head provides that schools to which equality legislation exemptions apply will reflect those exemptions in their admission policy statement.”
One of the intentions of the Bill is to ensure that enrolment policies will include a statement setting out the position of the school in relation to its arrangement for upholding the constitutional right of student not to attend religious instruction. There are no proposals to oblige schools to provide non-discriminatory exemptions that would suit the wishes of parents. The Bill does not deal with the practical application of the right to opt out of religious instruction classes and does not oblige schools to provide another subject.
This Bill will not protect atheist and secular families from the religious integrated curriculum as it only refers to religious instruction classes. There is no proposal to ensure that the curriculum is delivered in a neutral and objective manner. This Bill does nothing to change the situation on the ground and protect the human rights guaranteed under the various Conventions that Ireland has ratified. There is no proposal to amend or remove Section 15 (2) (b) and (c) of the Education Act 1998 which obliges Boards of Management to uphold and be accountable to the Patron for so upholding the ethos/religious objectives (Characteristic Spirit) of the school. This new Bill will not require schools to ensure a neutral studying environment.
The UN Committee of the Rights of Child has recommended the removal of religious discrimination in our education system. Last July the UN Human Rights Committee asked the Irish delegation the following questions regarding this Bill:
“Is it true that even under the new Draft general Scheme Bill, children of non-Christian families or atheist families may be discriminated against in admission to denominational schools if they do not fit with its ethos, provided a preference to the school’s denomination children is stated explicitly in the admissions policy of that school?”
“How does the Delegation explain the compatibility with the Covenant of a state of affairs that allows private schools, which have a near monopoly in Ireland on a vital public service, to openly discriminate in admission policies between children on the basis of their parents’ religious convictions?
I would appreciate, whether orally or in writing, the Delegation’s theory on this point, on this legal point. And whether the State believes or not that it is required to ensure a neutral studying environment in those schools, in denominational schools, outside the confines of religious instruction classes that can be opted out from?”
The Concluding Observations included:
“Ireland should introduce legislation to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion, belief or other status, and ensure that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State party to meet the needs of minority faith or non-faith children.”
It is really difficult to understand how any government can introduce a Bill that claims to reinforce the principle of maximum accessibility to and inclusiveness in schools while at the same failing to remove religious discrimination.
Did they think that we would not notice that our children are second class citizens and suffer religious discrimination in the education system? Did they think that the UN Human Rights Committee would not notice that this Republic continues to undermine the human dignity of the child.
It seems that in this Republic undermining the human dignity of the child is a fundamental part of our education system and this government are doing absolutely nothing to change that.