Text of Letter sent to Minister R Bruton T.D. regarding Admissions to Schools Bill 2016
Minister R. Bruton T.D.,
Minister for Education and Skills,
16th March 2017.
We, the Parents Association of Kilkenny College, are writing to you following your invitation to make submissions on the Schools Admissions Bill and are pleased to makes ours herewith.
While your Consultation Paper clearly states it is the primary school admissions system that is first being considered nevertheless, as the Parents Association of Kilkenny College secondary school, we are making this submission on the basis it will have both immediate and intermediate implications for us. Making changes in respect of the primary school system will inevitably impact on the secondary system. It is our deep concern that by altering primary schools admissions, the initiative will undermine the minority secondary school system with the effect that minority schools will not be able to serve the population for which they were established. As a school built of the ethos of the Church of Ireland but one whose Admissions Policy clearly provides for those of all religions and none, we are deeply concerned that all options presented by your Department place a direct threat to us as school providing education in line with the ethos of a minority religion. It is also one that we will steadfastly work to protect. By this submission we will clearly express that a fifth should be offered – retention of the status quo.
Our submission is framed in three sections namely:
- General Background of Kilkenny College which includes some information explaining why Options 1 and 2 would not work.
- A general comment on each of the Options and a suggestion for a 5th
- A final section that outlines some broader legal and political factors that we believe will be important matters as the debate on this initiative unfolds.
Section 1 – General Background
Kilkenny College serves, in the first instance, as a secondary school for the Diocesan College of the Cashel, Ferns and Ossory Diocese of the Church of Ireland and has done so since its inception in 1538. The school is, today, the only second level school with a Church of Ireland ethos serving the following Counties:
- Kilkenny, Carlow, Wexford, Laois, Offaly, Kildare, Tipperary.
Kilkenny College is also the only co-educational second level boarding school with a Church of Ireland ethos serving:
- Kilkenny, Carlow, Wexford, Laois, Offaly, Kildare, Tipperary, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford.
Our school has a current enrolment of 846 students of whom 432 are boarding students and 414 are day students. Of the 432 boarding students 420 live in the counties above and Westmeath, Cork and Dublin. There are 12 international boarding students.
Kilkenny College has a current total of 69 feeder national schools located in 12 counties of which 29 are Church of Ireland national schools. The balance are Roman Catholic, Educate Together or Gaelscoilleanna national schools. The school has grown with increasing popularity and respect and is currently heavily oversubscribed each year. In 2016 a total of three hundred and sixty two (362) applications were received for entry into 1st Form. Typical enrolment into 1st Form is one hundred and forty four students (144) of which 74 are boarding places. It is expected to grow to 870 by 2018.
Section 2 – Options and comments
Kilkenny College’s Admissions Policy is straightforward and transparent. Priority is given in the first instance to applicants from a Church of Ireland and other Protestant faith background. Priority is then given to siblings of existing students. Thereafter places are offered to applicants from the local and wider community. The College fills all available places each year and within the student community are students from all faiths and none.
Option 1 – Catchment area.
The Catchment Area proposal, as outlined in the Consultation Paper, does not provide a workable for our school. The following points portray the reasons why we would object to this option:
- In general local geographic catchments cannot be defined for the dispersed Protestant community and this most certainly applies to the population that Kilkenny serves. As noted above, we serve ten counties and, indeed, within the current student enrolment of approximately eight hundred and forty six, there are upwards of seventy students who come from outside of the Diocese.
- Likewise, we consider it incorrect to describe the catchment area of Kilkenny College as being the province of Leinster, since the school has significant numbers of students, both day and boarder, travelling from the neighbouring county of Tipperary, which has no Protestant secondary school within its borders. Furthermore, pupils come to the College from as far afield as Meath and Westmeath. – see background above. Serving the needs of ten counties is the reality that confronts our school.
- This option would also seek to ignore long-standing family links with particular schools.
- As noted above, Kilkenny College provides boarding facilities in order to accommodate Protestant students from their far-reaching catchment area. To confine our school to a more local “catchment” area will undermine boarding and almost certainly herald the end of this facility, one that has existed to serve the wider Protestant community on this island since its foundation in 1538. It will also render a large capital investment programme over many decades redundant with huge costs likely to be incurred in any restructuring of these facilities should the status of the school change.
Conclusion. The Catchment Area system, which sets boundaries to the catchment area, is completely at variance with the reality of enrolment of our school.
Option 2 – Nearest School Rule
In examining this proposal, we have also found this option inappropriate for the situation facing Kilkenny College. We note the following points:
- As with the “catchment area” approach, it must be remembered that minority faith schools (particularly at second level) are not all the same in that we cater for many minority faiths and none – not just Church of Ireland.
- The Nearest School Rule also seeks to dismiss the relevance of family traditions and identity within dispersed minority communities. As a general principle, we remember only too well, that religious viewpoints have dominated our society in the past and it is good to recognise more pluralism alongside religion. However, we are adamant that we must beware of not allowing the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction.
Conclusion. We do not favour the nearest school rule, for the reasons outlined above but also in relation to the dispersed catchment area from which our students come. It is not acceptable that a Nearest School system be used which sets pre-determined limits on what schools are available to a child based solely on those spaces available within the immediate locality
Option 3 – Quota System
Overall, we find this a crude option and one that would create many problems. Limiting the proportion of faith-based places within a school espousing to subscribe to that same religious ethos would seem incompatible with its very identity. We consider that:
- It is entirely appropriate that a school founded and operated under a particular religious ethos should give preference to applicant students of that same ethos. There is no doubt that within some faiths, religious upbringing and education are seen as contemporaneous and the imposition of denominational quotas would be viewed as completely irrational move.
- The number of Protestant children can change from year to year and a fixed quota system could lead to Protestant children being turned away some years and not others. Those that would, basically, be randomly turned away would have to be accommodated in a school with a different ethos of their own, while places would have to be offered to those of no connection to that ethos. This would lead to unfairness which would cause a great deal of hurt to families. Again this would lead to a dilution of the school’s ethos
- While, as a possible solution, that could possibly work in Dublin where more schools are available and distances shorter , it would undoubtedly damage rural Protestant primary and secondary schools where there will be a higher proportion of Protestant applications for a smaller number of places.
Conclusion. A quota system that (i) does not facilitate the accommodation of a scattered Protestant population and (ii) which would set pre-determined limits on enrolments each year will not be acceptable. Without clear exceptions being given would rule this option out entirely.
Option 4 – Outright Prohibition
The Irish Constitution, in Article 42, recognises the family as the primary educator of the child and makes particular mention of the rights of parents “in the matter of religious and moral formation” of their children.
It must be noted that Protestant schools in Ireland have a proud tradition of being inclusive and have long welcomed pupils from outside of their own denomination traditions. This can be seen to be the current situation in Kilkenny College as set out above.
In light of the constitutional rights of parents, it is necessary, however, that where they are oversubscribed, Protestant schools continue to be able to prioritise applicants for places of their own denomination tradition, who may be travelling from very considerable distances away.
The extension to the Post-Primary sector of an outright policy prohibition from using religion as a factor in admission is overtly against the principles upon which religious schools were founded. To permit faith-based schools to exist and yet to restrict them from accommodating members of their own faith is an inherent contradiction.
Conclusion. We do not believe an outright prohibition of religious denomination as a factor in Admissions to Schools is acceptable as this undermines Article 42 of the Irish Constitution as set out above. It is therefore not acceptable that an outright prohibition on religious denomination be the system used to manage admissions to schools.
We recognize that our above considerations have each presented reasons why each particular option would not work and that we have been less constructive in proposing solutions. This lies in the fact that we firmly believe that a 5th Option – retaining the status quo – is the only one that genuinely protects our minority status and respects the ethos to which we subscribe. Equally, we would add that is not a right that comes without a cost either on our side (as parents or members of our particular faith) nor that of the State. We would point that we too provide considerable additional resources, both in terms of actual finance but also our own time and commitment to maintain our school and insure the retention of an ethos we value.
Section 3 Other Issues
Finally, there are a number of additional issues we would like to bring to your attention.
- The extension to the secondary school sector of an outright policy prohibition from using religion as a factor in admission is overtly against the principles upon which religious schools were founded. Allowing faith-based schools to exist and yet to restrict them from accommodating members of their own faith would seem to be a contradiction.
- While religious schools have welcomed state assistance in terms of payment of teacher salaries and in some cases complete state-funding, at no stage during the process to enter the free scheme was the assistance understood to be contingent upon changes to Kilkenny College’s Admissions Policy. In fact, the contrary was assured i.e. our Admissions Policy was guaranteed to remain. Had alteration of our Admissions Policy been a condition it is very conceivable that the school Board would have made different decisions at that time. Adoption of this Bill without full recognition of our status and honouring the terms and conditions agreed in good faith would represent a serious change and led us to seek legal opinion and action. Additionally, at a stage when many schools have become economically dependent upon the state for their existence, a reversal to being wholly independent so as to protect our identity and ethos may no longer possible.
- In addition to our reference to Article 42 of the Constitution, we would also draw your attention to Article 2, of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights which states ‘No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’ We are of the view that this is a right against the State not against an education provider. We consider this a very legitimate right and would argue that, as a minority religion that could be discriminated by the Admissions Bill, this Article is an important protection against such discrimination. Politically, we would also feel that in light of any possible steps to move towards an united Ireland, such discrimination might not sit well in the overall scheme of future negotiations.
- Finally, we would note that in answer to Deputy Martin Heydon’s parliamentary question on Schools Enrolments Data 200-226 on 23rd February, the Minister responded that the information requested by Deputy Heydon was unavailable. To date no evidence has been provided in support of a need for change to admission policy in either the primary or post-primary educational sectors. The Minister has referred to a lack of school spaces in certain urban areas and oversubscription in the primary sector as affecting less than 20% of religious-based schools. In the absence of clear, strong data and evidence, we question why such a policy on Admissions is being pursued.
We thank you for the opportunity to make this submission and look forward to hearing the outcome of these deliberations. Once these are known we will be glad to work further with you in addressing the concerns we have raised.
Mr. Nick Bennett
Kilkenny College Parents Association