Schools Steer Irish Election

DUBLIN, Ireland — With a general election due to be held before the end of February, campaigners for a more secular Ireland are determined to make education a key issue for voters.

Access to education is the major flashpoint, with some children being refused a place in their local elementary schools. At first glance, it appears to be a shocking injustice in a modern country: 4-year-olds being denied access to education because they are not baptized Catholics.

Even The New York Times has weighed in on the story, alleging that while the Church “has lost the battles over divorce, contraception and gay marriage,” it “still wields what some parents call the ‘baptism barrier’: influencing admission to public schools.”

In a front-page article published Jan. 21, the Times highlighted the case of 4-year-old Reuben Murphy, who was unable to secure a place in nine local schools in south Dublin. The article asserts this was “because he was not baptized.”

The newspaper followed up the article almost a week later with an editorial entitled “Intolerable Bias in Ireland’s Schools.”

But much of the commentary fails to note that non-Catholic children can — and do — attend Catholic schools across Ireland, with no bar to admission. According to David Quinn, who heads the pro-religious freedom Iona Institute, “Catholic schools only show preference to Catholic children when they are over-subscribed.” Admission policies in Catholic schools — unsurprisingly, since they were established by the Catholic community — do prioritize Catholic children, but only when there are not enough places.

“I believe we should have Catholic schools where Catholics can come freely. They will never be exclusively Catholic schools,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said, as The Irish Times reported. “The big problem is we have Catholic schools in areas which are very good and everyone wants to go to them, and you have to have some criteria for judgment.”

There has been some anecdotal evidence that parents may be baptizing their children in order to get them into Catholic schools, though little by way of hard evidence. Archbishop Martin has said it is wrong if some parents may be baptizing their children simply to gain access to a Catholic school.

However, the primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, has questioned whether, in fact, parents do seek baptism to gain access to Catholic schools. “I hear people saying this,” he said, “but I haven’t seen evidence of it.”

Ireland’s system of elementary education has its roots in the pre-independence “national school” model organized under British rule. After independence, the new Ireland (known as the “Free State” until 1937) depended heavily on the Catholic Church to provide most of the infrastructure for the nascent state. This included hospitals and schools that were largely staffed by members of religious congregations.

Schools spread rapidly and were largely a creation of the local Catholic parish. When the southern part of Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922, 92.6% of citizens identified as members of the Catholic Church, while 7.4% identified as a member of a Protestant denomination.

While the Irish government paid the salaries of teachers and was responsible for supervising the curriculum, it took a hands-off approach to the management of the schools. The buildings were often erected by the local parish, and the local bishop had responsibility for the hiring and firing of teachers and the day-to-day management of the schools.

The 1937 constitution — a crucial piece of the puzzle in understanding the development of the model — asserts that the “state acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”

The constitution goes on to add, “The state shall provide for free primary education.” The crucial phrase is that the government will “provide for” rather than “provide” education, meaning religious and other bodies are entitled to establish schools and, as long as certain minimum standards are achieved, receive state funding.

Despite increased secularization, the education system has changed little, and schools have not kept up with changing demographics.

Currently, some 97% of elementary schools are owned and managed by a religious body, usually the Catholic Church.

The remaining schools are nondenominational and owned and managed by the “Educate Together” organization, which was established in the 1970s with the aim of providing education in a more secular environment.

Currently, some 84% of Irish people identify as Catholic, but there is considerable evidence that the number of people describing themselves as “non-religious” is increasing rapidly. In the most recent census in 2011, just under 270,000 people defined themselves as being of no religion, an increase of 44% from the 2006 census, indicating a legitimate need for the government to provide more diversity in education so that non-religious parents can send their children to a school in keeping with their values.

In fact, Catholic Church leaders have been at the forefront in calling for reforms and have expressed frustration at the slow pace of change. Dublin’s Archbishop Martin was the first to call for a forum to address the need for more pluralism. He has insisted that the Catholic Church has no desire to be the default provider of elementary education and expressed the view that the Church may divest from some schools in communities where there is no longer demand for Catholic education.

But this has been fiercely resisted by parents in many communities where the Church has tried to pull out.

However, none of this addresses the fundamental reality that children are turned away from Catholic schools only where the schools are over-subscribed.

According to Father Michael Drumm, chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, which brings together the leaders of the Catholic school sector in a unified body, Church-run schools “are open to all children whose parents apply for admission.”

Father Drumm says the problem of over-subscription affects only a small minority of schools in the Dublin area.

Nationally, most schools, including Catholic schools, are seeking students, he said, noting that religious affiliation, consequently, would not form the basis of these schools’ enrollment policies.

And he underlined that, in the minority of cases where schools are over-subscribed, those schools must publish the criteria they use in their selection of students.

According to David Quinn, the key problem is that the government has failed to plan for an increased number of children and provide the necessary funding.

Where a school is over-subscribed, Quinn believes, “It is perfectly rational for a school to wish to admit those who support its ethos ahead of those who do not support its ethos.” He points out that even schools operated along secular principles give preference to the children of parents who are supportive of that ethos.

Quinn argued the responsibility is for “the government to provide more schools in places where schools are over-subscribed.”

“This is very much a localized problem,” Quinn insisted, “and as long as the government refuses to provide the number of places we need for an increased population, Catholic schools will be over-subscribed.”

But Quinn also sees it as part of a wider war on faith-based schools in Ireland. Earlier in February, Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan removed the rule that stated that religious faith should permeate the school curriculum. There have also been calls for the repeal of legislation that allows the Church to employ only teachers who are sympathetic to the ethos of the school.

“The very idea that so many of our schools form children — or at least try to — in a given religious faith also offends influential people. The claim is made that it would be fairer if we simply abolished our present patronage system and if the state took over all state-funded schools and ran them on a more ‘egalitarian’ basis,” Quinn said.

Of course, this would crush parental choice and effectively nationalize Ireland’s Catholic schools, he added. While this cannot happen without a referendum, and there is little public demand for such a referendum now, this may change if the current situation continues unaddressed, Quinn believes.

Quinn believes that Ireland’s hand might well be forced, with disastrous consequences. “What might well happen is that a case will be taken to the European Court of Human Rights and a finding made against our education system.

“In all likelihood, the finding will be narrow. It might, for example, be a ruling against the baptism rule, but it will be used as an excuse to radically change the constitutional provisions regarding education and freedom of religion.”

Added Quinn, “None of this is a foregone conclusion, obviously. What is clear, however, is that the current situation is unsustainable; and if there is no change, then calls for a referendum will grow.”

Michael Kelly is the editor of 

The Irish Catholic newspaper. 

He writes from Dublin.