Analysis: School catchment area proposal may be quagmire
By: Carl O'Brien. Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 01:00
It may look like an easy solution to the Baptism barrier on the face of it . However, the use of catchment areas to help level the playing pitch for all students could well bog down school admissions in a bureaucratic quagmire.
Publicly funded schools are legally permitted to discriminate against students in their admission policies based on their religion.
In a system where 95 per cent of schools are run by a religious patron – mostly Catholic bodies – this means non-religious or minority faith children can be denied access to their local school and parents are left struggling to find them a place.
Key players, such as Catholic bodies, Fianna Fáil and Labour, have thrown their weight behind proposals to ensure that schools would prioritise children in their admission policies from within their own catchment areas.
If implemented, it would mean religious schools could not discriminate in favour of a member of their own faith from outside its catchment area above a locally based non-religious child.
Schools, however, would still be able to prioritise members of their own faith if they live within the catchment area. Many Catholic schools have been operating catchment areas – typically based on parish boundaries – on an informal basis for years without any major problems.
However, if these proposals are made into law, it will oblige religious primary schools to have catchment areas underpinned by cold, hard legislation.
So, against this legal backdrop, who will ensure no one draws up artificially large catchment areas, allowing schools to fill all their places with children of the same religion?
Who will adjudicate on the cases where a family claims they reside within a catchment area but are deemed outside it? What appeals mechanism will there be when a family still isn’t satisfied with decisions made?
Using parish boundaries wouldn’t necessarily make the challenge any cleaner or easier. What, for example, happens if a parish school lies at the edge of the parish boundary and has a long tradition of children attending the school? And what about schools run by religious orders which are not traditionally part of the parish?
This, inevitably, could lead to a bureaucratic super-structure to police these issues.
Outsource to churches
From the Department of Education’s point of view, it could clearly like to outsource these nettlesome issues to the churches.
Its consultation document suggests these issues could be adjudicated on by the relevant church or religious authorities, who would have to create either nationally or regionally a process to mediate or adjudicate disputes in relation to borders between schools in question.
While parish boundaries could work for Catholic schools, the department’s consultation document envisages larger boundaries for minority faiths.
A Church of Ireland Ireland school, for example, could serve a much larger area. As for the two existing Muslim schools in Dublin, they may potentially have to divide effectively the greater Dublin area between them.
It all sounds complicated for what should be a simple issue.
Religious schools may be forced to prioritise local children
By Carl O'Brien, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 01:00
A proposal to oblige religious schools to prioritise locally-based children in their admissions has emerged as a front-runner in plans to limit or remove the “Baptism barrier” from education.
At present, publicly funded schools which are oversubscribed may prioritise children of their own religion ahead of other children who live closer to the school.
This has become a highly contentious issue given that more than 90 per cent of primary schools remain under the patronage of the Catholic Church or other religious organisations.
In response to a consultation process launched by Minister for Education Richard Bruton last January, a catchment-area approach has attracted support from Catholic bodies, Fianna Fáil and Labour.
This proposal would prohibit religious schools from giving preference to children of their own faith who live outside their catchment area ahead of non-religious or minority faith children who live in the locality.
However, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and campaign groups such as Equate favour a more radical proposal for an outright prohibition on using religion as a factor in admissions.
Mr Bruton has said he wants to introduce changes to the “Baptism barrier” as soon as possible.
A spokesman for the Minister said decisions around next steps would be taken once all the responses had been examined.
The four options Mr Bruton proposed involved allowing schools to favour children of their own religion only when those children live within the school’s catchment area, or when that school is their nearest one; a quota-based system; and an outright ban on using religion as a factor in admissions.
The Catholic Primary School Management Association, which represents the boards of management of the more than 2,900 Catholic primary schools, said the catchment-area proposal was the “least problematic” of the options.
However, it says reforms to admissions policies will do nothing to alleviate the shortage of school places and only extra school places will remedy this.
Fianna Fáil also supports a selection process based on catchment areas, where children from the catchment area get preferential access.
It says that simply abolishing section seven of the Equal Status Act – which allows schools to discriminate on the basis of religion – would “endanger minority faith schools’ right to their defend their ethos” and “ride roughshod over all of their concerns”.
Labour’s proposal also says a catchment-areas approach might provide the best solution to this issue, adding that it was the first to suggest this in a Bill proposed by its education spokeswoman Joan Burton last year.
It says there may be a role for the Education and Training Boards to co-ordinate the work of drawing up catchment areas, as well as providing a forum for the local community.
By contrast, the INTO says it favours an outright prohibition on using religion as a factor in admissions, as well as the repeal of section seven of the Equal Status Act.
It says schools must be fully supported with clear, realistic and non-discriminatory policy guidelines and procedures.
Similarly, the campaign group Equate also supports such a move on the basis that other options would “continue to allow schools to use religion as a criteria in some form for school admissions”.
Mr Bruton has pledged that changes will be introduced within the lifetime of the Government.