Parents will have say on the Church handover of schools
Ruairi Quinn's target of removing half of all primaries from Catholic control is unlikely to be met
Quinn's worth: Minister for Education plans changesTechnologic: Principal Marianne Henry with pupils at Naas Community National School. Photo by Ronan Lang
Parents are likely to play a key role in deciding the future of Catholic primary schools as the new Minister for Education moves to take hundreds of them out of church control.
There is common agreement, even within Government itself, that Ruairi Quinn's initial target of removing 50% of schools from Catholic patronage by the beginning of next year is unrealistic.
At present the Catholic Church acts as the patron of 90% of the country's 3,200 primary schools.
The church itself accepts that it will have to give up the patronage of many of its schools.
The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has been a prime instigator of this process.
Ruairi Quinn is currently setting up a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism to work out how the running of schools will be handed over.
While there may be acceptance at top levels in the church that many schools will have new patrons, there are many obstacles to be over- come.
Michael Drumm, secretary of the Catholic Schools Partnership, said: "It cannot be forced through without the support of local commun- ities.''
Among the issues to be teased out over the coming months are:
- Which schools will give up Catholic patronage, and how will this be determined?
- Will the church have any say in the type of school that emerges and the way in which religion or faith formation is taught?
- Will consultations be confined to parents of children at an affected school, or will parents of pre-school children in the general locality also have a say?
- How will the school properties, often owned by charitable church trusts, be transferred, and will there be costs for the state?
- What will happen to staff and parents who wish to opt out of the new arrangement?
Although the Minister put forward a figure of 50% as a target for the transfer of patronage from the Catholic church by the end of this year, there is a recognition in government circles that this is unlikely to happen.
A source close to the Minister said: "We are not going to wake up on January 2 and see that 1,500 schools have passed from Catholic control.''
According to the government source, parents in each local area are likely to have the main say in what happens to the schools.
The Minister's announcement has given rise to fears the Catholic involvement in education will be forcibly removed.
But the vast majority of schools are unlikely to change, at least in the short term.
The transfer of patronage is most likely to take place in country towns or suburbs, where there may be four or five Catholic schools in the locality, and no alternative for par- ents. A position paper by the umbrella group, the Catholic Schools Partnership, last week showed the church's current thinking on the issue.
The report acknowledged that in certain areas some Catholic schools may no longer be viable.
"In such situations the Catholic Patron, in dialogue with the local community, might make any buildings which are surplus to requirements available so that the Department of Educ- ation could plan for greater diversity of school pro- vision.
"This must be planned locally and based on respect for the rights of parents and all other stakeholders, including local parish communities.
"If sufficient demand for a school under different patronage can be demonstrated then all of the stakeholders should work in partnership towards this goal.''
This is most likely to occur when a Catholic school closes due to a shortage of pupils or where two schools amalgamate. According to the report, provision will have to be made for the rights of Catholic parents and their children.
So who will take over the schools? As a successful provider of multi-denominational education, Educate Together is well positioned to become patron of a number of the schools.
Benefiting from a strong tradition of parental involvement, Educate Together started in Dalkey in 1978 and is now the patron of 58 schools. Rather than receiving their faith formation inside school hours, pupils follow an an "ethical education curriculum'' where they learn about different religions and beliefs.
While academic standards at the Educate Together schools tend to be high, it remains to be seen whether Catholic authorities and more conservative parents will be happy to hand the keys of their buildings over to them.
One senior education official was sceptical and warned that there could be a backlash.
"Outside The Pale how many Catholic dioceses or boards of management are going to say: 'Here's my school, you can take it and best of luck." They will want some reassurance about some aspects of how the school are going to be run.''
Others believe that in some areas the church, with an ageing priesthood, will be only too happy to give up the onerous task of running schools.
The bid by Ruairi Quinn to change the patronage of hundreds of schools will not just affect their religious outlook. For better or worse, it will have a profound impact on how schools are managed in the coming decades.
In setting up new models of patronage, the minister must ensure that standards are not just maintained but improved.