I thank the Minister for bring the Bill to the House. I look forward to debating it and progressing it as expeditiously as possible because, as other Members have stated, it has been a long time in the making and undertaken a significant journey to get to this point.
There is much to welcome in the Bill. I particularly welcome the recognition of the importance of access for all to education and to schools in terms of the provision of special needs classrooms and supports and the fact that the State may make orders in that regard, although I will not speak on it to the same length as Senator Kelleher, who has a strong background in that area. My one concern on that section regards the question of resourcing, which has been very clearly highlighted. Provision has been made in terms of fair dialogue in respect of the resources that may be needed in terms of property but, as was described, there are other resources and resource needs that come with an order. Those resources should be strengthened and there should be a commitment to their provision, although it may not be necessary to stipulate that in the Bill. The Bill currently refers to additional provision as the Minister deems necessary but more dialogue may be needed in that regard.
For me, a fundamental and important part of the Bill regards finally beginning to bring our education and school system in line with the true spirit of the Equal Status Act 2000. People were greatly concerned about that omission at the time of that Act's enactment. Bringing our education system closer to the spirit of the Equal Status Act is crucial in terms of religion and also sends a stronger message of equality in respect of the other categories listed and which must be outlined in admission statements, including sexual orientation, disability, membership of the Traveller community and race. Although provision had previously been made in that regard, those categories being very clearly set out in admission statements sends a strong message of equality and invitation to the entire community, as should be done by every school.
I slightly disagree with Senator Ó Domhnaill in regard to the baptism barrier. We have been told that it is not often used. I attended the Joint Committee on Education and Skills although I am not a member of it while this issue was being debated because I have a strong interest in it. While it is interesting that the baptism barrier is only sometimes used, it was made very clear at the committee that in many cases it is not a measure to protect the ethos of a school but, rather, to discriminate or discern or indicate preferences. The fact that it was not uniformly applied reinforces that message somewhat.
I very much welcome the removal of the baptism requirement and slightly disagree with Senator Ó Domhnaill who stated that, as a result of certain students no longer being denied a place due to the baptism barrier, other students would lose out. He stated that no one student will be better off. I would argue that students are better off, as are schools as a whole, because the removal of the baptism barrier signals a clear ethos of equality in schools and also ensures that schools, including those in which there is pressure on resources and places, will accurately reflect the diversity of the community in which they are located and the children in that community. Part of the function of schools is to play a key role in bringing the children of our communities and the next generation of communities in contact and into engagement with each other.
In that regard, other Members have highlighted that there are areas on which the Bill could be stronger. I concur with some of the exemptions provided for, such as in regard to gender. There are potential concerns in respect of provision for minority religions. I believe that diversity within our schools is a positive thing. I recognise that the Minister has brought forward what he believes can now be put into effect.
I urge that the removal of the baptism barrier and clarity on equality within admission statements not be seen as a substitute for the shift in patronage which is required in our schools system. Perhaps the Minister will assure us that none of the urgency in regard to changes in patronage will be lost as a result of the enactment of the Bill.
A seven-year waiting list for an Educate Together school was referred to. The campaign for an Educate Together school in Galway began when I was about five years of age and the primary school finally opened while I was finishing college. I am now 43 and they are still campaigning for a secondary school, so there has been a long battle. There is a very clear impetus and there has been too much delay. The Minister is aware of the key concern in regard to scaling up within Educate Together schools, for example.
On Gaelscoileanna, which have been mentioned, I am very happy to work with the Minister on how he wishes to bring that forward and ensure the right to attend a Gaelscoil is addressed. It is a right of choice. Some people wish to have their child educated through Irish in a multidenominational school and that overlap must be considered.
I thank the Minister and look forward to the next Stage of the Bill.