Northern Ireland

Irish school places proving a headache for parents of unbaptised children

Nikki Murphy
Image caption Nikki Murphy says she has applied to 15 schools for a place for her son Reuben

Many parents take getting a school place for their child for granted.

But what if the child can't get a place because he or she has not been baptised?

That is the situation that faces one family in the Republic of Ireland, where the Catholic church controls 90% of schools.

Nikki Murphy is sitting in the front-room of her house in Terenure in south Dublin playing with her four-year-old son Reuben.

His toy helicopter and trucks are scattered on the floor.

She said she has applied without success to 15 local schools - Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Jewish - for a place for Reuben.

Why? Because he is not baptised and not a member of any religion in a state where the churches control 96% of all schools and give preference to their members rather than to local children.

She said: "Parents shouldn't really have to work this hard to get a school place for their child.

"These are state-funded schools, so, we're frustrated and very angry.

"There's a lot of stress, anxiety and sleepless nights. We're desperate at the moment."

Nikki knows that the state must offer Reuben a school place, but it could be several miles away.

She said that might mean him having to stay overnight with her parents from Monday to Friday, given her and her husband's work commitments and Dublin's traffic.

Paddy Monahan's seven-month old son, Cormac, is also unbaptised.

And he is also at risk of not getting a local school place.

Image caption Paddy Monahan says it is unconstitutional to discriminate against children like his son Cormac

Paddy, a barrister, says it is unconstitutional to discriminate against children like his, and he has 16,000 signatures seeking a change in the law.

"I just want my kid to go to the local school around the corner," he said.

"It's 200 metres away and it's a really good school.

"It's paid for by taxpayers. It doesn't bother me that it's owned by the Catholic Church. It's paid for by us. I just think it's good for kids to mix in their local school."

The Balbriggan Educate Together primary school in north county Dublin does not believe in separating children on the basis of beliefs.

Its pupils are of all religions and none.

There is a growing demand for places in such schools, which are still relatively small in number, reflecting both a more racially diverse and less religious population.

'Urgency'

Mary McGrath and her husband, Richard Long, who are both atheists, currently have three children at school there.

Richard said: "From a personal point of view, the less religion they are taught, the happier I am."

Mary added that they "liked the multi-denominational ethos where they learn about all religions but where there is no faith formation and the family values of our home are still respected in the school day".

Image caption The number of people attending church in the Republic of Ireland has fallen sharply

Aoife Leahy, another parent, said that in the Educate Together model "nobody is made to feel an outsider".

"Everyone is valued," she added.

"I don't think people set out to discriminate.

"But sometimes schools are using policies that are quite old that maybe need to be updated, and society here has changed a lot."

Society has, indeed, changed.

The numbers attending church have fallen sharply, partly as a result of modernisation and partly as a result of the child sex-abuse scandals by priests that were covered-up for decades by the Catholic hierarchy.

This year, the Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to vote for same-sex marriage in a referendum - and by an overwhelming margin.

The Balbriggan Educate Together's principal, Dr Fintan McCutcheon, said he wished "that we didn't have a situation whereby over 95% of our schools represent the sectoral interests of an undemocratic body without any electoral mandate to run those schools".

'Growing demand'

He said he wished the Irish government "would address that issue with considerable urgency and expediency".

To meet the growing demand for more non-religious education, the Catholic Church has said it will divest itself of schools but it is not doing so fast enough, according to both its critics and the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin.

The Department of Education says schools should, in future, be obliged to take pupils based on proximity or how close they lived to the school, rather than membership of a particular religion.

But that will require a change in the law which may not be enacted before the general election expected early next year.

In the meantime, parents like Nikki Murphy are still anxiously seeking primary school places for their un-baptised children.