Bishop Leo O’Reilly statement on school admission policies and equality

14 Sep 2007


14th September 2007


The enrolment policies of faith schools have prompted the Equality Authority to express concern at “the emergence in effect of segregated primary school provision for black and minority ethnic students”. This is indeed regrettable, but it is not the fault of faith schools, which provide education for large numbers of students from other faiths and none, whatever their colour or ethnic background. I am confident in saying that the only restrictions on this provision in the case of Catholic schools are space and resources. In the Catholic schools recently in the news there were simply not enough places for all the students who wished to enrol.

Catholic schools welcome students of other faiths and none if they have places to accommodate them. Race or ethnic origin have nothing to do with the criteria for admission into Catholic schools and suggestions from some quarters – not, I stress, from the Equality Authority – of racially motivated admission policies in Catholic schools are either misinformed or malicious.

The assumption behind the recent statement of the Equality Authority in relation to enrolment in faith schools is, however, mistaken. The assumption is that the reason for preferring Catholic students in a particular area to students of other faiths or none is in order to maintain the ethos of the school. This might be the case if those of other faiths seeking admission were the majority, but that is hardly ever the case. In fact, the reason for preferring Catholic students in most situations is that the Church founds schools and invests in schools in order to provide a Catholic education for its members. It does this in response to the desire of Catholic parents to have their children educated in Catholic schools and in doing so it invests heavily in providing sites for schools, personnel for management, and administrative support for Boards of Management. This is in addition to the tax contributions made by Catholics as well as by everybody else in society.

The point at issue then is not the need to maintain the ethos of the school, but rather whether Catholic parents have the right to provide an education for their children in accordance with their own convictions. This right is enshrined in the Irish Constitution and also in many international instruments.

The tenor of many of the contributions to the debate in the past couple of weeks would give the impression that claiming this right was a peculiarly Irish Catholic aberration. In fact it is nothing of the sort. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) declares that ‘Parents shall have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children’ (Art. 26, 3). The United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) upholds ‘the liberty of parents… to choose for their children schools… which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the state and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions (Art. 13,3). The European Convention on Human Rights states that, ‘In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching as is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’ (Protocol 1, Art. 2). The Irish Constitution ‘guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children’ (Art 42.1). The Catholic Church, in upholding the Constitutional rights of Catholic parents to the provision of Catholic education for their children, welcomes the exercise of this right by parents of other faith traditions as well.

To say that the Catholic Church, or any other Church or faith group are guilty of discrimination because they give preference to members of their own Church or faith is akin to blaming the GAA for giving preference to the supporters of Cork and Kerry when distributing the tickets for the All-Ireland final. The real issue here is the provision of alternative models of patronage to meet the needs of a rapidly changing pluralist society. Catholic schools will continue to welcome children of other faiths and none where they have the resources to do so. The provision of schools under different patronage for those parents who wish to avail of them for their children will ensure that parents have the choices that are guaranteed to them in the Constitution, and that Catholic schools will have the space and the resources to continue to be inclusive of other faiths in their enrolment in the future as they have been in the past.

Bishop Leo O’Reilly
Chairman, Bishops’ Education Commission.

Further information:
Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Kathy Tynan Communications Officer (086 817 5674)