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Wednesday 18th January 2017

Christian, Integration

‘Baptism barrier’ reforms may hit minority faith schools

Analysis: Richard Bruton’s proposals will not effect the majority of Catholic institutions

Tue, Jan 17, 2017

Carl O’Brien

‘Some Catholic bodies have queried the extent of the issues surrounding the Baptism barrier, but said they were open to ideas to ensure local children have access to schools.’

Where was the Catholic Church backlash against proposals to remove the “Baptism barrier” from the education system?

Members of the clergy have resisted the divestment process aimed at increasing the number of multi–denominational schools, and effectively scuppered progressive plans for a new subject on world religion and ethics.

Many may have expected fresh outrage over plans which could loosen the ties between the Church and its schools.

Instead, the Catholic Schools Partnership, an umbrella body for Catholic schools, welcomed Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s announcement yesterday, and pledged to positively contribute to the consultation process.

Other Catholic bodies queried the extent of the issues surrounding the Baptism barrier, but said they were open to ideas to ensure local children have access to schools.

The lack of controversy may be down to the fact that many in the Church insist the Baptism barrier simply is not an issue for most of their schools.

Séamus Mulchonry, of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which runs about 90 per cent of the State’s publicly–funded primary schools, says the vast majority of its schools accept all children and the issue is limited to “middle–class areas of Dublin” where there is a growth in population.

“If there is an adequate supply of school places we will take the child; if Damien from The Omen arrived into a Catholic school he would be accepted.

“Our tradition is one of inclusivity, and of accepting wherever we have spaces.”


Whatever about the real scale of the issue, there is a growing acceptance within the Church over the need to deal with it.

Given that the Catholic Church controls about 90 per cent of all primary schools, people such as Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin have acknowledged it is not in their interest to maintain as firm a grip on the education system.


It makes more sense, for example, to have fewer but stronger faith schools if the Catholic hurch is to maintain the characteristic spirit of its education.

Dr Martin has criticised some in the Catholic Church for slowing up the the divestment process in schools.

“I feel that certain people are dragging their feet and feeling that, ‘well if we don’t talk about it it’ll go away’. It won’t, and the danger is we will end up without Catholic schools,” he said, last year.

Similarly, it is in the Church’s interest to ensure non–religious or non–practicing parents are not baptising their children solely to gain access to their local school.

The removal of the Baptism barrier, and the provision of more multi–denominational schools, would give parents greater choice and allow the Catholic Church to ensure it has stronger faith schools in the longer–term.

In a sense, the issue of the Baptism barrier is a much bigger a one for minority faiths such as the Church of Ireland.

Many of the options proposed by Bruton for removing the Baptism barrier could conceivably pose a threat to Protestant, Jewish or Islamic schools being able to set aside places for members of its faith.

The Church of Ireland Board of Education says its schools exist to serve their students who are entitled to receive their primary and second–level education within an ethos that reflects their beliefs.

“The board is strongly of the view that considerations around changes to school admissions must reflect this existing practical reality,” it said in a statement yesterday.

Level playing field

The consultation over how to go about ensuring there is a more level playing field in access to education has just begun. Inevitably, there will be winners and losers.

Dr Conor O’Mahony, a senior lecturer at UCC’s school of law, says that even if the Baptism barrier is removed, religious organisations will maintain a relatively privileged position.

“These denominational schools retain the privilege of public funding to support their religious ethos. As such, they would still be better off than, for example, non–religious families.”

Bruton has pledged to speedily deal with the issues, and insists legislative proposals will be ready by June. It remains to be seen if this pledge to remove the Baptism barrier within the lifetime of the Government will be fulfilled.

It will involve navigating a complex array of legal and administrative landmines over the coming months. He acknowledged as much yesterday.

“There is no simple solution to this challenge, and there are strongly–held views among people who stand to be impacted.

“No one should pretend that these issues are simple, or that there is an easy fix which solves everything and leaves no possible unintended consequences.

“In particular, as we develop reforms we must strive to avoid impacts on the rights of minority religions. We should live and let live, and aim for the greatest good for the greatest number.”