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Catholic mother loses case after claiming girl turned down for school bus scheme on religious grounds

The family were told the girl wasn’t eligible for the free scheme because there was a suitable school nearby.

File photo
File photo
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

A MOTHER WHO took a case against the Department of Education, alleging her family had been discriminated against because of their religion has had it rejected at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

A practising Catholic, the woman wanted her daughter to attend a Catholic secondary school but the nearest one was over 20km away.

There was another school – a multi denominational one – much closer than the Catholic one and the child was turned down for a place on the School Transport Scheme for this reason.

The mother claimed that children attending a Church of Ireland school from the same town could avail of the scheme, but that her daughter could not, and this amounted to discrimination on religious grounds.

Multi denominational schools

The family reside in a provincial town, where the nearest secondary school was a multi denominational school where religious education was taught but was not a Catholic ethos school.

The mother decided that the school did not suit her child’s needs, and that the Catholic ethos school would be the most suitable, but there was no public transport linking the two areas.

She was aware that there was a school bus that left her town every morning to take children to a Church of Ireland ethos secondary school and a Gaelscoil in a neighbouring county around 27km from the family home. The Catholic school was also in this area.

The woman contacted Bus Éireann to see if her daughter could travel on this bus, and she said she was told that this was possible. They went to visit the school and the child was enrolled there with a view to starting in September.

She said it was only after speaking to the parents of other children who attended the school that she realised her daughter might not be eligible for the school bus.

She said Bus Éireann told her that the previous information she’d been given was incorrect and her daughter wouldn’t be able to avail of the school bus.

The mother then contacted the Department of Education, which administers the School Transport Scheme. It replied: “Bus Eireann have advised that this family resides 26.4 km from home to “School C” post primary centre (being the Catholic ethos school in the neighbouring county) and reside 1.2km from “School A” Vocational School, their nearest post primary centre.

The family are not eligible for school transport as they are not attending their nearest education centre.

 

She disputes that the nearby school should be considered the nearest school for the purpose of accessing the scheme.

She said that families of the Church of Ireland faith who wished to send their children to a school with that ethos wouldn’t have to send them to the nearest school and would be able to avail of the bus scheme. At the same time, their wish for their girl to attend a Catholic school meant they were not able to the avail of it.

The School Transport Scheme’s eligibility criteria, she argued, do not state that an ethos applies to minority religions only.

She now travels 10km every morning to bring her daughter to a bus that does bring her to her school. It was her case that it was unfair that a bus left their town to bring other students to the Church of Ireland school and gaelscoil, but her daughter couldn’t use it.

Exceptions

In response to the woman’s complaint, the department submitted that there were two special provisions put into the scheme, including for education through the Irish language and for those of Church of Ireland faith.

The department said that school transport is not an entitlement nor is it incumbent on the State to provide it.

It said that the multi denominational school provided teaching that included the Catholic ethos, so it was considered the nearest education centre for the purpose of the mother’s application. It added that the girl was treated the same way as other children are treated under the scheme.

The WRC adjudicator said that the facts presented were “sufficient to raise an inference” that the family had been subjected to less favourable treatment because they were Catholics than a Church of Ireland or other minority religion would be treated.

He noted that while there were 343 post-primary schools operating under a Catholic ethos, there were only 23 under a Church of Ireland ethos.

The adjudicator said he was satisfied that the department had shown that people looking to attend a secondary school under a minority ethos would find it difficult to avail of the same opportunities as those attending a Catholic ethos school.

Therefore, the provisions in the scheme had a “bona fide intention to take positive measures… to promote equality of opportunity”, according to the adjudicator.

Finding in favour of the Department of Education, it found the woman and her daughter had not been discriminated against on religious grounds.

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Sean Murray

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