I thank Senator Bacik for raising this issue. To put it in context, it is important to state that, under our education system, patrons' boards of management have an independent role. It is a right of religious institutions to run their own schools, which is protected in the Constitution, and to have their own characteristic spirit, but they must do so within the laws of the land.
The issue of admission to schools is governed by two sets of legislation, the first of which is the Education Acts. As the Senator will be aware, under our system, parents have a right to choose whatever school they wish their children to attend and schools must have an admission policy which must be available for inspection by parents. That admissions policy must be non-discriminatory and be applied fairly in respect of all those who apply. The other element is the Equal Status Act, to which the Deputy referred, which provides protection for schools which select on the basis of religion in preference to others. As the Deputy is aware, I have been a critic of this and have introduced legislation to change it, which was recently passed in the Seanad.
The position on decisions on admission by a board of management or a school are appealable to the Department of Education and Skills. Therefore, the Department or, in the case of the Equal Status Act, the Workplace Relations Commission will assess whether the school has applied the admission policy fairly and whether it has been done in accordance with the law as set out. To my knowledge, an appeal regarding unfair admission has not been made at this point to the Department.
As the Deputy will be aware, I hope to implement, at the earliest possible date, the new provisions of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. As she will know from discussions in this House, while I have sought to remove religion as a criterion for admission generally, I have provided that a child of a minority religion should be able to apply to a school of that ethos and be given preference in view of the effort we make to ensure a child or his or her parents gets access to their preferred education.
The measure I have introduced is proportionate. It does not provide protection for the use of religion in the case of children of a majority religion because they have 18 out of every 20 schools from which to choose, but a child of a minority religion could have only one of every 20 schools from which to choose. This is a proportionate and fair provision. In assessing it, it is important that consideration is given to what the legislation is providing for. A primary school may give priority to the admission of a student where the school is satisfied that the student concerned is a member of a minority religion and the school provides a programme of religion instruction or religious education which is of the same religious ethos or a similar religious ethos to the religious ethos of the minority religion of the student concerned. The school will only be allowed to take account of the statement that the applicant has provided and any evidence that the applicant has provided that he or she is a member of a minority religion. Schools that admit students of a minority religion in accordance with this provision of the Act will not be permitted to rank those students according to the particular denomination or religion of the child concerned. I do not believe linking school admission with church attendance would meet the provisions of the law.
It should be said also that these provisions only apply where a school is oversubscribed. Where a school is not oversubscribed, it is obliged to take all applicants, regardless of religion.
This is a significant step forward in giving fair access for all parents. I have also amended the provisions of section 29 of the Act, which continues to prevail, so that where a student feels he or she has been unreasonably refused access, he or she has the right to make an appeal. I will continue to reform in this area. One of the Bills I hope to shortly present to the House is a parent and student charter Bill, which would ensure parents are consulted when there is any proposal to change admission policy. The future direction of reform is to be more embracing of parents and students in the running of schools while respecting the distinctive role of the patron and the board.