A strong Church of Ireland presence at the Forum on schools’ admissions policy

A ‘Forum on the Role of Religion in Primary School Admissions’ was held in Croke Park on Monday. A notable feature was the strong presence of Church of Ireland representatives at the meeting, there to defend the rights of their community.

The event was organised by Education Minister, Richard Bruton. It brought together parties that had made submissions on the topic.

The half day consisted of four parts: (1) a short scene-setter by Minister Bruton, (2) a presentation by DES Assistant Secretary Martin Hanevy outlining the Minister’s four options, (3) a Breakout discussion session in eight mixed groups of fifteen to twenty people each tasked with discussing the four options for admissions policy, and (4) a Plenary Reporting back from these groups.

The Minister’s Introduction set the demographic scene.   Among the points made were that in the 2016 Census 12.5% of people stated that they were of no religious affiliation or that they failed to state a religion.   The Minister stated that in the 20 to 40 year age group, those most likely to have children of primary age, there might be as much as 20% with no stated religion.   As the moment only 4% of primary schools are non-denominational and consequently parents who do not necessarily want a denominational school have little choice.   In his opinion in respect of oversubscribed schools those with no religious affiliation so often feel compelled to baptise their children in order to secure a school place and that this was unfair. (There is no hard evidence on this score).

The 31 new primary schools provided by the Department of Education and Skills (DES) in the last seven years were all non-denominational.   The DES is aiming to bring to 10% the proportion of non-denominational schools.

The DES has 314 planning areas and will only expand schools where there are not enough places in the area.   15,000 additional places are required annually.   The Minister wants to be able (1) to find places locally for all children, (2) to meet the demands of minority religions and (3) to look at distinctive solutions that represent change.   The Minister set out the four options for change and made the point that the constitutionality of these had not been tested and were not to be part of our Breakout discussions.   He emphasised that doing nothing was not an option.

Martin Hanevy, Assistant Secretary, then took us through the four options and their advantages and disadvantages.    The idea of a quota system for denominational schools seemed to be the one favoured by the DES but this seemed to be fraught with all sorts of difficulties.    So too the notion of catchment areas and how they would be determined.

In the eight Breakout groups, led by DES officials, we discussed two questions: (1) What objectives are important (to you) in any changes to the role of religion in admissions? and (2) What solutions do you propose to the present dilemma?

Present in my group were a representative of the Catholic Federation of Secondary Schools Parents Associations, a Church of Ireland (C of I) school principal, an interested non-aligned non-denominational advocate, a C of I Board of Management member, a C of I secondary principal, an Equate spokesperson, a Secular schools advocate, CEO of Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP), a Fianna Fail party education researcher, a National Parents Council secondary representative, and a lady who felt that the whole exercise was a total sham.

It would be difficult to summarise our inputs other than to say that minority schools were well represented and put forward a very good case for retaining the status quo.   As a group we were divided on the question of retaining denominational schools and their right to grant first preference to their members.

The CSP representative quoted Archdiocese of Dublin statistics to show that the problem in respect of oversubscription was very small and that the basic problem was one of lack of school places in several areas.  The representative emphasised the inclusive nature of Catholic schools.   Some others were not convinced.   It also seemed apparent that parents making multiple applications were often creating the impression of an oversubscription problem much worse than reality.

In the long report back session it became obvious that the eight groups had very similar discussions and that not one group came out in favour of any of the options offered.   The notion of a common admissions procedure/mechanism was common to all eight groups and I emphasised this in my plenary contribution.   This plenary session seemed to drag on with speakers for change like Equate and Atheist Ireland making speeches rather than addressing the core issues.   The Minister was asked several questions in the course of this session but he confined himself to a few effusive words of thanks to all participants.

Some personal reflections:

(1)   I am not sure what if anything was achieved by the Forum.

(2)  Minority Christian religions made a big impact by numbers and contributions.

(3)  As I understand it, over 1,000 submissions were made and so I am confused as to how those present were selected.  Many of the individuals to whom I spoke were equally surprised to have been invited.   In particular, I met two quite elderly people who seemed hardly aware of the subject matter for consideration.

(4)  Individuals were given as much say as group representatives and their observations could go unchallenged.

(5)  The nature of the exercise was such that the discontented and the promoters of change were given a major voice.

(6)  There is a clear need for real evidence of the situation rather than “hearsay”.

(7)  Those supporting the positives in Catholic Education have an uphill challenge.

(8)  There is a need for well-informed Catholic parental voices at national school as well as secondary school level.

(9)  Given the Dublin location, the cost of transport and the early Monday morning start, to which many individuals made reference, it is likely that there were few Forum contributors from more remote parts of the country.

Alan Whelan is a retired school principal