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.
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:
- accelerating the divestment process;
- encouraging and enabling schools to transform - just as Newtownwhite ETNS did in 2014;
- building new schools under state ownership.
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.