Equal Access

The Campaign For Equality In Education: Where Do We Go From Here?

The demand for equality in education has reached tipping point. Many General Election candidates are acknowledging the need for it and committing to providing it.  However, the question for parents, children and citizens today is “where do we go from here?” 

Equal access ≠ equal respect

Let us assume that in the lifetime of the next Dáil, Section 7(c) of the Equality Act is deemed illegal (unconstitutional?) and denominational schools will no longer be permitted to apply enrolment polices that discriminate on the basis of religion. It will, in a number of oversubscribed religious schools, ensure that non-baptised children will be more represented in the pupil numbers that they are today. These unbaptised children will be educated in a Catholic or Protestant school in which the National Curriculum takes into account the ‘child’s affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious needs’ while recognising ‘the rights of the different church authorities to design curricula in religious education at primary level and to supervise their teaching and implementation’. So, although they may facilitated to be absented from some aspects of religious teaching, their ‘religious education’ is wholly dictated by the religious patron of the school. They will be regarded as, labelled and identified as minorities with fewer rights than those who identify with the faith of the patron of the school.

Resistance is likely

Let us go further and assume that the ‘integrated nature’ of the curriculum through which religious instruction may be present in all subject areas is itself held to be unconstitutional.  How would this ruling be implemented in a system in which the status quo is deeply institutionalised in school practice, in employment contracts, in legal arrangements with school patrons, in colleges of teacher education and fundamentally in a system that is privately owned by religious bodies?

To introduce such a change by law will be met by considerable resistance both active and by the inertia of systems and custom and practice. Huge resistance to this change would be mounted by the Catholic Church and many within the system who wish to continue to avail of a faith-based education, be it Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. A complicated change process will need to be undertaken that will take years to implement.

A solution

Whatever way this is examined, nothing quick will emerge to satisfy the equality and rights of children in schools today or emerging schools in the next few years. It is most likely that the issue will remain a rather abstract and legal debate among organisations who will not provide a real and ‘effective remedy’ for children and parents needing equality in our education system today.

What is realistic and realisable is to rapidly provide an alternative network that delivers equality of access and esteem to children by:

These schools do not need to be under the patronage of Educate Together, but they must deliver the same level of guaranteed equality of esteem and access as Educate Together schools. 

The growth of this network should be prioritised according to those areas where most parents are demonstrating their desire to access Educate Together model schools and a planned programme, consistent with national planning objectives, should be implemented by the incoming government. This needs to be a properly resourced programme with a dedicated budget agreed at the cabinet table and built into the expenditure projections of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. There is no better example of a necessary “reform”.

Properly resourced, such a network would enable the vindication of the rights of parents and children and also maintain the right of parents to chose denominational schools if that is their preference. It will allow the State to demonstrate that is has lived up to its constitutional and international obligations and met the standards expected in a modern democratic state.

School Access Is Not The Only Issue

Once again the issue of over-subscription to Catholic national schools has been raised in the national media. This morning Newstalk Breakfast covered the Irish Catholic’s survey that less than 2% of Catholic schools in Ireland are oversubscribed. The implication is that there are not that many that children being refused access to their local school on the basis of religion. It is simply unacceptable that any state-funded schools in Ireland continue to be allowed to discriminate against children on the basis of religion. Listen here

Perhaps more unhelpful in this continuing debate is the implication that access is the only issue parents face when choosing a school for their children. It is undoubtedly a fact that many children do get accepted into Catholic schools and those children have to ‘opt-out’ of religion instruction, marginalised and othered in their own classrooms. This is an inadequate arrangement and does not address the inequalities embedded within the Irish primary school system.

This, in addition to the democratically-run and child-centred ethos of Educate Together, is why parents want Educate Together schools for their children. Nineteen areas still wait for the Educate Together schools they were promised by the outgoing Government and start-up groups around the country are clamouring for Educate Together at primary and second level - expressions of parental interest are reaching up to 15,000-20,000. 

Of course every child should be able to attend their local school. But their local school should treat all children with equal respect in the classroom, regardless of religious, social or cultural background. Educate Together is working towards a day when all children have access to a school that is truly inclusive and equality-based. We are asking all our supporters to ask all election candidates to commit to Educate Together’s 4 Essentials for Equality in Education