New rules banning discrimination against children who are not baptised in school admission policies should be in place for September 2019, the Minister for Education has said.

The Cabinet yesterday approved a proposed amendment that will remove the "baptism barrier" for Catholic primary schools.

It also approved new powers for the minister to compel schools to open specialised facilities for children with disabilities where there is a need.

The proposed new rules on school admissions and religion were referred some months ago to the Attorney General amid fears that any proposals would be subjected to legal challenge from Catholic interest groups.

The Department of Education told RTÉ News that it has "worked extensively with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure the amendments being introduced are constitutionally robust".

They only apply to primary schools.

In a statement outlining details of the proposed changes, the department said that while 90% of primary schools are Catholic, an estimated more than 20% of parents have no religion at all, and only half of all marriages occur in a Catholic ceremony.

In the statement, Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the change approved by Cabinet balanced the rights of three different groups: minority religion families, Catholic families, and non-denominational families.

He said Catholic families would continue to be able to get their children into Catholic schools, and Catholic schools would still be able to protect their ethos, given that 18 out of every 20 schools were of that ethos.

The minister said the change meant that non-religious children would now be treated equally when it came to admission to 95% of schools.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Bruton said he wants to make it easier for children to get into their local school and that it is unfair that parents feel compelled to baptise a child in order to secure a school place. 

Mr Bruton said there will always be some schools that are more popular than others, and removal of the 'baptism barrier' gives equal opportunities to parents applying to their local schools. 

The legislative amendment says religion can no longer be used as a criterion for allocating school places in the vast majority of schools.

Under the proposed amendments a primary school will be in contravention of the Equal Status Act if it gives preference in its admissions policy to applicants of a particular religion.

The measure will affect the 90% of primary schools that are Catholic. It will be welcomed by parents and groups who have campaigned against the "baptism barrier" in recent years.

However, schools run by minority religions have a type of an exemption. The proposed laws include measures to ensure that children who belong to minority religions can still access a school of their faith. A minority religion is defined as one that no more than 10% of the population subscribe to.

The General Secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association has said the new rule would have little effect in practice.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Seamus Mulconry said 95% of schools were not oversubscribed and so would not be affected by the new rules.

Researching the issue, the association found that in the Dublin area 17 schools out of about 450 were impacted and that 1.2% of unsuccessful applications were affected.

He said the real issue was about a lack of school places, not about religion.

Mr Mulconry said a few weeks ago the Minister for Education had declared there was a shortage of school places and an extra 16 schools were going to be built.

He said by doing that the Minister was addressing the real issue and thus making the legislation redundant.

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The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has welcomed legislative proposals published by Government.

Chief Commissioner Emily Logan said: "Parents have expressed that they feel under pressure to baptise children in order to access schools.

"The Commission welcomes the proposed amendments, which once enacted in law will see equality in schools' admissions policies, and ensure that children can have equity of access.

"Ireland is a diverse country and that diversity must be reflected in our schools as much as in our society. These proposed amendments set out that discrimination cannot be a systemic feature of our education system."

Special educational needs

A second amendment approved yesterday will be welcomed by the parents of children with conditions such as autism or visual or hearing impairments.

Aiming to address what many parents and others involved in the area regard as a chronic shortage of specialised classes in mainstream schools for children with special educational needs, this amendment gives the minister the power to compel a school to open such a facility, where the National Council for Special Education has identified a need.

This was a provision requested by the NCSE and comes amid what can be a reluctance on the part of schools to open such specialised facilities.

These amendments are related to school admissions legislation that is currently making its way through the system.

The minister said he hoped to quickly commence the provisions on both the role of religion in school admissions, and classes for children with special educational needs, once the bill was enacted so that the new measures would be in place by September of 2019.

Irish-speaking children

A third proposed amendment, also approved by Cabinet, will allay concerns among Irish speakers and Irish language schools that such schools might no longer be able to give preference to Irish-speaking children in their enrolment policies, when the new school admissions legislation comes into force.

This third proposal ensures that schools that provide an education through the medium of Irish can continue to prefer such children.

Mr Bruton said it was not desirable in terms of public policy to unintentionally prevent students who had attained a level of proficiency in the language from continuing their education through Irish.

This amendment lays down certain criteria and limitations. Irish language schools will not be allowed to require a child to attend for interview or assessment to establish proficiency.

However, parents or guardians will be allowed, should they choose to, to submit proof of age appropriate fluency in a form such as a video recording, or to ask that the school provide for an interview or meeting with the child for this purpose.

Any special educational needs a child might have must be taken into account in determining the appropriate level of fluency in Irish for them.

This last measure will come into force when the school admissions bill is enacted, the minister said.