Ruth Coppinger (Socialist Party, Dublin West)
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to end religious discrimination in admission to primary and post-primary educational establishments and to provide for full participation of pupils of all faiths and none in primary and post-primary educational establishments.
This is aimed at ending religious discrimination against children in our schools, treating all children equally, giving them equal access to our schools without the religion of their parents being a factor and, during the school day, affording children of all religions and none due consideration in the curriculum.
The first Part of the Bill aims to delete section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000. Unfortunately, the Government refused to do this when given the opportunity last week despite the Labour Party’s commitment to parents that it would do so. The second Part amends several sections of the Education Act 1998 so that when children gain equal access to a school, they will not be unfairly subjected to indoctrination in one religion.
Section 7(3)(c) is unbelievably backwards, socially divisive and discriminatory legislation. It is past time for it to go, in recognition of the fact that we have a different type of society now. There are State-run, taxpayer-funded schools, buildings and teachers, yet the boards of management or school patrons are allowed to draft admission policies that are based on inequality. Of two parents who attended the Dáil last week, one was a Hindu living in south Dublin whose daughter has to travel 6 km to school. He had to apply to seven schools and was told by the archbishop that the only way around the situation would be to baptise his child. To tell a Hindu that was crass. Another parent’s son was turned down by eight schools and needed to stay back a year in order to find a school in the local area.
In Dublin, the problem is most acute where school places are few, forcing the Catholic Church to introduce a Catholic-first policy or the quotas that we have seen in operation in a number of schools in my constituency of Dublin West. Ludicrously, parents are driving miles from their local schools and criss-crossing with other parents on the same streets, which adds to traffic and causes other problems. They should be entitled to have their children attend their local schools.
Last week, there was considerable interest in and debate on this issue. Unfortunately, the Government chose to say “No.” It is rank hypocrisy to tell parents to wait until the next Government comes along. Flawed as the Constitution may be on questions of religion, there is nothing in it that obliges religious discrimination in schools.
The second Part of our Bill amends sections 9, 15 and 30 of the Education Act 1998, essentially moving schools in a secular direction and away from a role as centres for passing on faith. This is a recognition of a changing society. A growing number of people are no longer of the majority religion – that is, Catholic. There is more diversity, with people from different nationalities and backgrounds. Parents want to see their children attending schools with other children from their communities. We propose the removal of the phrase “the characteristic spirit of the school,” which obliges boards of management, the Minister and school managers to allow religion to pervade all teaching in schools. For example, maths must be taught in line with the school spirit. I have heard examples of a triangle being compared with the Holy Trinity. This is happening in our schools. The teaching of science must give due recognition to evolution and so on.
We need to remove the obligation on schools and allow children to be taught in an objective and pluralistic way. We also need to stop forcing school managers to ensure that religion forms part of the curriculum. That should be the choice of parents, with religion taught at the end of the school day.
We need to decouple boards of management from school patrons so the latter, which are generally of just one religious denomination, will not have undue control over the ethos of schools. We must ensure children are not compelled to attend classes in religious instruction. We have seen cases only in recent weeks where schools have been compelling pupils in this regard despite their constitutional right not have to have religious instruction. It is past time that we allowed children equal access to schools.