Baptism barrier ‘a dark stain on national conscience’ – Ferriter

Prof. Diarmuid Ferriter wrote this in The Irish Independent on 30 March last.

The so-called ‘baptism barrier’ to children getting a place in Catholic primary schools is “a dark stain on the national conscience that needs to be removed”, according to Professor Diarmuid Ferriter.

The UCD Professor of Modern History told the INTO conference that “unbaptised children and their parents are treated as second class citizens and that has to stop”.

Prof Ferriter, both of whose parents were long-standing activists in the INTO, traced key developments in Irish education since the 1916 era in the course of an hour-long address to the conference.

He spoke of the scale of “enlightenment” of the current system, such as the focus on well-being, learning communities and gender positive action. He said 100 years ago Padraig Pearse was preoccupied with the idea of the “charismatic teacher and a child-centred approach”.

Prof Ferriter said while there was a shift away from religious control of schools, “nevertheless we have a denominational system”.

He said parents had a constitutional right about the choice of school to which they sent their children, but then he cited legislation that allowed schools to protect their ethos and asked “in reality do the really have that right, do they really have that choice”?

The legislation to which Prof Ferriter referred is the Equal Status Acts, which prohibits discrimination across society on nine grounds, including religion, but religious-controlled schools were given a derogation which allows them to give priority children of their faith.

In practice this means that, in Catholic-run schools, which account for nine in 10 of the country’s primary schools, children who have been baptised get priority enrolment over children who are not baptised, but live closer to the school.

It puts many parents who do not necessarily want their children baptised in the Catholic faith into a situation where they feel forced to do so in order to secure a place in the local school.

Prof Ferriter described it as “another dark stain on the national conscience that needs to be removed if we are to have truly republican education system”.

He said the current system did not protect those of no faith, even though the Irish Republic was to have a toleration of all faiths and none.

Letter to Editor today in Irish Examiner

John Colgan has a Letter to Editor in today’s Irish Examiner about the ‘Rules for National Schools (1965)’.

The letter needs to be read in the context that these Rules are not a true statement of the current rules governing our National Schools as no codification has taken place since 1965.

The education minister’s mention of the “Rules for National Schools, 1965” as archaic on the cusp of a general election truly exemplifies the expression ‘kicking the can down the road’.

For while the rules have been in place for 50 years, they were, and remain, a detached, subversive piece of work, typical of the State’s biggest spending department, Education.

No act of parliament was made enabling them to extensively alter the preceding early 18th century legal arrangements.

They were never published as a statutory instrument under the Statutory Instruments Act, 1947, nor were they laid before the Oireachtas for the approval or amendment of the two Houses, which the 1947 Act required.

They were merely issued by the education minister of the day, Patrick Hillery. Parliament was sidelined by the department.

The back staircase in the department’s Marlborough St offices is called ‘Staighre na nEaspag’ — the bishops’ staircase — and clearly their hands are all over these rules.

Who else would put in the hands of a minister of a Republic words that religion is the most important subject in a school?

No minister and no secretary general has the competence to make such a judgment for society. Ever since, there’s been a slide away from the national school system as established in the 19th century. This system was approved by the then Catholic archbishops of Armagh and Dublin.

Then religious instruction and secular education were compartmentalised, allowing room for students of every faith and none to attend one school without being proselytised in the process.

Interweaving religion with secular subjects never had any place in the State’s vocational schools; no harm came of it.

The invention of the late 1980s, ‘religious ethos’ — which finds no mention in the Constitution — undermines pupils’ constitutional rights in publicly funded schools. The bishops have clout disproportionate to their negligible stake in our national schools.

The next governments needs to reclaim them.

Let us be a real republic for 2016.

John Colgan

Dublin Road Street

Leixlip

Co Kildare

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