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Senator Bacik speaking on "Education Matters: Statements"

10 February 2009


Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to speak on education, a subject on which I have very strong views and in which I have a strong interest. I should declare my interest as a lecturer in the law school in Trinity College and as somebody who is, therefore, very centrally involved in educating law students.

I will begin by saying something about the third level sector. I wish to congratulate Trinity College, my own institution, on being the first Irish university to make it into the top 50 third level institutions, as ranked by The Times Higher Education Supplement. It is a remarkable achievement given the relatively low levels of funding for the third level sector.

Previous speakers spoke about the need to ensure the third level and the fourth level - the postgraduate level - sectors play a significant role in upskilling people who now face unemployment as a result of the current economic situation. I agree that is a vital role for our universities to play. What are the Minister's plans to offer third level institutions the extra funding needed for them to play this vital role in helping to address the serious problems of unemployment which so many people in this country will face, not least among them our law graduates, the people I educate daily in Trinity College? That is a very important question on the funding of third level.

In the brief time I have I wish to focus on another issue entirely relating to the primary level and the secondary level sectors. Others spoke about the difficulties of underfunding, problems with class sizes, problems with school buildings and so on. These are enormous problems faced by primary school pupils and their parents every day. I offer some criticism of the Green Party in particular which came into office with a commitment to make education a key political priority and yet is now sitting by while class sizes increase and children with special needs are let down by cuts in funding. Those are really serious issues.

However, I wish to address a point which has not been highlighted so far in the debate, that is, the control by the churches, especially the Catholic Church, of education, in particular primary education. In the past I have written about the fact that of the more than 3,000 so-called national schools, 92% are owned and effectively run by the Roman Catholic Church, their patrons being the local Catholic bishops.

This afternoon I met parents from Wicklow whose identity is known to the Minister because they have been in contact with him a number times about their difficulty. They do not want their child to receive a Catholic education but the only schools in their immediate vicinity in rural Wicklow are Catholic schools. The Catholic school to which they sent their child did not offer them the accommodation that is supposed to be offered to children under our Constitution when they are sent to a school which is not of their parents' faith. Article 44 of the Constitution provides that children should not be discriminated against where they are not of the religion of the particular school. There is a duty on schools to offer accommodation to pupils of a different religion. The problem is that in Catholic national schools, there is an integrated curriculum - a religious spirit and a spirit of religious instruction which pervades the entire day. It is very difficult for children who are non-Catholic and whose parents are non-Catholic to live with that system. What does the Minister propose to do about this problem?

Senator Brendan Ryan referred to the problems in Balbriggan where Educate Together had to be invited to set up a special school because there were not enough places in the local schools. We saw schools discriminate quite legitimately on the basis of religion because they are allowed to do so under the Equal Status Act. This has led us to a segregated school system and one which is built on sectarian lines. It is not something over which we can stand in an Ireland which is increasingly pluralist and where the number who profess themselves to be of the Catholic faith is dwindling in every census. In the last census in 2006, 83% of persons aged 20 to 44 said they were Catholic, the age group most likely to be parents of school aged children, and yet 92% of our national schools are Catholic. There is a clear gap in provision for children whose parents are not Catholic, who may be of a minority religion or who may have no religion, and who do not wish their children to receive a Catholic education and yet who live in an area where the only national schools are Catholic schools.

We also live in a country in which the Educate Together school group, which has done incredible work accommodating children of no religion or of minority religions, finds itself with enormous waiting lists for its schools because there are now so many children whose parents wish them to receive a multi-denominational education.

The Minister should specify how he proposes to accommodate children whose parents do not wish them to receive a Catholic education and where their local national school offers this integrated curriculum. Will he address the difficulty raised by this Wicklow couple who have written to him a number of times and to a number of Members of this House and whose plight they asked me to raise specifically with him today?