Comment & Analysis

Schooling the Oireachtas on the ‘baptism barrier’
CPSMA general secretary Seamus Mulconry addressed the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills about the Equal Status (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, Diarmuid Martin, during a visit to Our Lady of the Wayside National School, Bluebell, Dublin. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Seamus Mulconry

No Catholic school wishes to exclude any child from the benefits of a Catholic education. In almost 95% of our schools, we take everyone who applies. Our schools are welcoming and diverse, dedicated to the full development of the child and not to indoctrination. 

The school that my child attends is a pretty good example. It basically reflects the geographical area in which it is situated. It takes everyone and all comers.

The difficulties schools, parents and pupils face are really about resources and not religion. 

There is a growing issue of oversubscription found mainly in the Dublin area and the commuter belt, such as Meath and Kildare, but that sometimes flares up in other locations. We have been looking at this issue for a while. 

Last year, we identified about 21 schools in the greater Dublin area in which there were problems with oversubscription. This year we have identified 42. 

In 17 of those schools, there was an issue with baptism. That equates to about 1.2% of rejected applications. There were approximately 26,968 applications to Catholic primary schools that completed a survey for us. Of these, 19,218 were successful. Of the remainder, only 1.2% were unsuccessful due to an issue with a baptismal cert. 

Locations

The key point I am making is that this issue is really about a lack of school places in some geographical locations. The Bill before us is an admissions Bill. It will not add one school place. It will not solve the problem. 

We need to investigate what is really going on in terms of oversubscription. We need to identify where extra school places are needed and put them in as a matter of urgency.

The Bill itself is a little bit unclear. It does not define the catchment area, which is core to what the Bill is about, nor does it define how a school can prove that it has taken in sufficient numbers of its own denomination to prove that it has satisfied local need. 

We have a real concern that if the Bill goes through, it will not solve the problems we are facing but could create a field day for lawyers who would have a merry time trying to figure out loopholes and could pit schools against each other. If schools are allowed to define their catchment areas, there is nothing to say that catchment areas could not overlap. 

For this reason, we believe the Bill is premature and we urge the committee to investigate what is going on with oversubscription in the greater Dublin area. 

It is interesting that the legislation has been drafted and we have had a long debate on religious issues in schools without hard data. That is precisely why we surveyed schools in the Dublin area, in order to provide hard data and give us a picture of what is going on. 

Most Catholic primary schools will take anybody who turns up, which means that our schools are very diverse. If one goes to Ballaghaderreen or Portlaoise, one will find schools with significant Muslim populations. There is no barrier to entry other than a lack of places. 

It is not our desire to have wholly Catholic schools. In fact, in the Dublin area I know of no Catholic primary school that is wholly Catholic. There are significant populations from other faiths and significant numbers of people who are of no faith. 

The issue is a lack of school places. Policy should be driven by data, not by anecdote. If communities are having specific problems – and I am aware and cognisant of the challenges faced by the Muslim community – then we need to understand what is happening.

Areas where there is a problem with the baptismal certificate tend to be concentrated, so the problem is not evenly distributed. 

The worst case is a particular location where there were 402 applications for 208 places. There were roughly 16 refusals based on baptism, but – and this is important – there were between six and eight people who were not baptised but were brought in because of the sibling rule. Therefore, this idea that there is some kind of blanket desire to keep people out is absolutely incorrect.

We asked the Department of Education and Skills for an overall picture of what is going on in schools. They said it was not compulsory for schools to do it and seemed to be unsure of some of the data they had, so were not willing to publish it. 

We would love that information to be made public because, if so, one would find – and I am absolutely convinced of this – that Catholic schools are reflecting the populations of their areas.

In some areas there is a sense that Catholic students from outside the catchment area – and most schools in Dublin are operating some variation of a catchment area – are getting preference in Catholic schools and therefore excluding others. 

Issue

The issue for us is that there are three parishes in Dublin which do not have Catholic primary schools and therefore parishes around them have to take that overflow. That may be contributing to a perception that there is an issue on that.

I would love to see more hard data driving policy, so we can identify where there is a problem, deal with it now as quickly as we can, and then ensure that we predict where problems will arise in future. Our schools are reflective of the communities in which they live.

I would also like to raise an issue that has not yet been raised, but which should be. I was speaking to my colleague in the Edmund Rice Trust which operates 33 primary schools. Almost all of them are DEIS schools with a focus on special needs and minority communities. Not one of them is over-subscribed, so there is something going on here that has less to do with religion and more to do with other factors.

Catholic schools are often picked out as the ones that are somehow to blame for all of this. I would remind people that we have the majority of DEIS schools and we cater to some of the most marginalised communities. 

What do we see happening where there is pressure in rural areas? Middle-class flight from town schools which may have an immigrant population to smaller schools on the outskirts creates problems for some of our schools on the outskirts. 

Therefore there is much more going on in admissions than religion, and a sole focus on religion is avoiding the bigger picture. 

Our concern over not being able to give priority to Catholic children in cases of oversubscription is not related to school ethos. Oversubscribed schools tend to be in areas where a number of schools are oversubscribed.

In a recent article in the Irish Times, Kitty Holland wrote about her problems in getting her child into a school. She pointed out that she could not get into the Catholic school because of baptism, but in point of fact the list was so long that baptism would not have made a difference anyway. Her child could not get into the Protestant school. However, the interdenominational school and the Gaelscoil were taking people from outside the catchment area.  

These things happen. If, as a Catholic parent, I was trying to get my child into a school there, I could find myself being pushed down into a school with another patron rather than into a Catholic school where I would have the ethos I wanted for my child. It is a concern around Catholic parents being able to access Catholic schools in cases of oversubscription because they could actually be disadvantaged where they could not get their children into other schools. 

I tend to think we should drive these things with data. That is why I would love to see some proper research into what is happening in Dublin. 

It is clear to me from the story Kitty Holland wrote that the problem in the area was oversubscription, not religion. If we had hard data, it would inform good policy-making.

Barriers

I do not normally go for anecdotes, but one was given to me recently which was deeply shocking. A teacher had a Traveller child in her school, a lovely young fellow. 

He said, “Miss, I like this school. I do not get expelled from it that often.” She asked him what he meant. He said that at his last school, he was expelled every couple of days. The school was moving the child on and the family eventually got the message and moved. That stuff happens too. It is not around admissions, but there are soft barriers which are not defensible. 

 

The above is an edited transcript of Mr Mulconry’s contributions to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills discussion on the Equal Status (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016. 

 

Prioritising children?

Asked whether the CPSMA believes schools need to be able to prioritise children of their own faith, Mr Mulconry said this was the case “within a catchment area”, and explained that since 2011 the CPSMA has advised that oversubscribed schools should consider 

  • children from a feeder school; 
  • sisters and brothers of pupils currently in the school;
  • Catholic children living within the parish boundary; 
  • Catholic children living outside the parish boundary who do not have a Catholic school within their own parish boundary;
  • and other children living within it.