No baptism, no schools for Irish kids
Because more than 90 percent of state schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church, unbaptised children like Reuben Murphy, pictured above with his mother Nikki, are at the bottom of their admissions lists – and a growing number of Irish parents are railing against the system.
The Guardian reports today that instead of starting school last month, Reuben, four, found himself back in his Dublin nursery for another year as his mother, Nikki, re-embarked on her quest to find a place for him at a local state primary.
She has already applied to 15 schools. But, following rejections from nine last year, Murphy is far from confident that a place will be found for Reuben.
I’m desperate. I’ve met tons of parents who’ve baptised their children just to get a school place. We thought about it, but it goes against our conscience. I feel it would be an abuse of other people’s deeply held religious beliefs.
A drive to repeal the legislation that allows Irish schools to operate admissions criteria based on faith is gathering momentum. Almost 15,000 people have backed a petition to be presented to parliament in the next couple of weeks, and campaigners are determined to raise the issue of unbaptised children in next year’s general election.
According to Paddy Monahan, a Dublin barrister who launched the petition, the law is an unconstitutional anachronism in a country which is among the top 10 most avowedly atheist societies in the world, according to a WIN-Gallup global poll.
The poll found that just 47 percent of Irish respondents identified themselves as religious in 2012. Non-Catholic immigration to Ireland has further diluted the church’s hegemony.
But religion is still firmly entrenched in the country’s education system, with nine out of 10 schools run by the Catholic church (another 6 percent are managed by other denominations and religions). All are required to follow a standard curriculum with 30 minutes a day ringfenced for religious instruction.
Schools are permitted to set admissions criteria, which usually place local Catholic children at the top and unbaptised children at the bottom, with as many as half a dozen categories in between. In Dublin and other cities where good schools are over-subscribed, the parents of unbaptised children are forced to search in ever-widening circles.
Said Monahan, father of seven-month-old Cormac:
When my son was born, I realised he won’t get into our local school as the law stands. Ninety-six percent of schools are entitled to discriminate. In a 21st-century democracy, this is a shambles.
An Ipsos MORI poll earlier this year found the vast majority of respondents agreed that all children should have equal access to school places, whether or not they had been baptised. It also found that, while 93 percent of parents had their children baptised, only a third took their children to mass or prayed with them regularly.
For parents under the age of 35 – those most likely to have pre-school children – just 14 percent took them to mass regularly.
The state is more or less forcing people to have their children baptised in order to get a school place.
Roopesh Panicker, a Hindu originally from India, applied to seven schools for his daughter Eva last year. The only offer came from a school almost four miles from the family’s Dublin home.
Panicker complained about schools’ admissions policies to the government and the office of the archbishop of Dublin. He said an official from the archdiocese suggested he baptise Eva.
I said, you’re asking me to change religion to get my daughter into school?
According to Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, access on its own does not solve the problem.
There is no point in getting access to a school that discriminates against you once you get in, and that also discriminates against teachers who are atheists or minority faith members. Most of the complaints that Atheist Ireland gets from parents are about religious discrimination within the school, particularly problems with opting out of religious education that is integrated throughout the entire curriculum.
Eight UN and Council of Europe human rights bodies have told Ireland that its schools breach the human rights of atheist and minority faith families, according to Nugent.
The main alternative to religious schools in Ireland are run by Educate Together, which has no religious affiliation but manages only 74 out of 3,200 primaries. In Dublin, its schools have more than four times the number of applicants than places. It says:
Currently there are not enough school places to cater for the growing number of families seeking an alternative to denominational education across Ireland.
The Department of Education in Dublin said schools promoting religious values were exempt from anti-discrimination laws in admissions policies if “the refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school”.
A church spokesperson said it was “not the function of the Catholic church to provide education for all of Irish society” and it was “unfortunate that Catholic schools are simply not big enough to cater for the numbers who wish to enrol”.
The Irish government should consider building more schools or extending existing ones, said a spokesperson.