Educate Together cries foul over plans for Catholic school handover
The Catholic bishops have given the nod to a new initiative that could lead to the handover of more than 150 of their 2,880 primary schools to multi- or non-denominational patron bodies.
But there was a hostile reaction from Educate Together, which questioned its fairness and transparency, and claimed it would favour transfers to the new model of community national schools, run by local education and training boards (ETBs).
They were responding to moves by Education Minister Richard Bruton to give fresh impetus to the process of divesting Catholic schools, which has made little progress since it was launched five years ago.
Bishop Brendan Kelly, chair of the Bishops' Council for Education, welcomed the announcement and also a statement made by Mr Bruton last Friday, relating to the teaching of religion and sacramental preparation in community national schools. He said the council would study the minister's proposals and would also continue to engage with Mr Bruton, his officials and with ETBs.
Religious education is a key issue for the Catholic Church in any handover. The bishops are more comfortable with the approach taken by the community national schools than Educate Together.
In a speech last Friday, Mr Bruton referred to ongoing work on the structure of the community national school religious programme, which could bring it even closer to meeting the requirements of the Catholic Church.
But a spokesperson for Educate Together described Mr Bruton's proposal as "both unfair and unworkable".
The multi-denominational education body, which is patron of 81 primary schools, said it was neither fair nor transparent as ETBs - State agencies with a central role in the process - also had a vested interest because they are patrons of community national schools.
Educate Together said community national schools were the preferred model of the Catholic Church, while Mr Bruton had also endorsed them. It said the plan "seems to be designed to facilitate the handover of religious schools to ETB-run schools in return for payment".
Mr Bruton rejected claims of a potential for a conflict of interest on the part of the ETBs, saying: "What other bodies would you use than our local statutory authorities with elected members and representatives of the education stakeholders?
"They're embedded in the community. They're the ones who should have the consultation, and should openly report on what has transpired in that consultation. You can make the argument that we need Chinese walls but I think that can be managed."