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 Header Item Equality in Education Bill 2015: First Stage (Continued)
 Header Item Equal Participation in Schools Bill 2015: First Stage

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 899 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien] It is outrageous that people are discriminated against. To attend local schools, most parents are forced to baptise their children for the sole purpose of getting places that are not a 40-minute drive from their homes.

Every week I have been contacted by parents who are active on this issue. Throughout the year, I have also heard from parents who are not activists but ordinary people who want their children to attend their local schools with the kids they play with every day in their estates. It is outrageous that the State-funded education system allows religious discrimination in this manner. Every time the matter has been raised, the Minister has fobbed us off with the response that a programme of divestment of patronage will address it. We have all seen how painfully slow that process is. The Minister's plans for divestment of patronage are not delivering. Even if they provide a diversity of patronage in a small number of areas, we will always be left with a situation in which some children will be prevented from attending their local schools due to religious discrimination.

The Bill that we are introducing will not prevent the teaching of religious studies in the multidenominational sense. Children should be educated in the belief systems of the various world religions in a non-faith-formation setting, just as happens in multidenominational schools. Should parents wish to have their children engage in faith formation or religious ceremonies, that would be their choice, but it should take place outside of normal school hours so that those parents who want their children to opt out can do so.

The separation of church and State must be completed. We must move to a democratically controlled education system that is truly representative of the community, respectful of the rights of people of all religions and none and child-centred. The education system must allow every child to reach his or her full potential and should be universally available as a right. It is essential that we have a school system that is fit for purpose and reflects the diversity of Irish society. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has acknowledged that faith should not be imposed. There is a litany of human rights bodies that have stated that the current system contravenes human rights.

The State has an obligation to ensure that the rights of children and families are respected. This means ensuring that the price of admission to the education system is not opting into religious ceremonies that may go against an individual's religious, philosophical or ethical standpoint. Such a practice does not live up to Article 42.3.1° of the Constitution, which reads: "The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State."

When there is nowhere else to send a child, what can a parent do? Even if parents do not need to christen their children to gain access to their local schools, rule No. 68 is still on the books. It has been applied rigorously, with faith formation permeating many aspects of the curriculum to which it has no business being applied. There is no educational reason for religious terminology to be used in the teaching of primary school maths and English. The public good does not require it.

I recognise that the Bill does not do everything that is necessary to rectify the indefensible control that the religious orders have over the school system, but I introduce it as a genuine initiative to begin a dialogue on the matter. For this reason, I urge the Minister of State to allow it to proceed to Second Stage.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett Is the Bill opposed?

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Simon Harris): Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris No.

  Question put and agreed to.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

Deputy Jonathan O'Brien: Information on Jonathan O'Brien Zoom on Jonathan O'Brien I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

    Question put and agreed to.

Equal Participation in Schools Bill 2015: First Stage

Deputy Ruth Coppinger: Information on Ruth Coppinger Zoom on Ruth Coppinger I move:

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 the question 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.

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