Should schools be run by untrained volunteers and reluctant priests?
Primary principals have called for a radical shake-up of boards of management. Kim Bielenberg reports
They are a vast army of volunteers who give up their time to run primary schools, but in some cases they are struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of change.
More than 26,000 people serve on the boards of management of Irish primary schools.
These boards have a vast range of responsibilities including school finances, planning, buildings and admissions policy.
They also play a role in the appointment of principals and teachers.
Many boards function effectively, but in a new report the Irish Primary Principals Network warns that the current system is "outdated and inadequate''.
Sean Cottrell, director of the IPPN, said: "No expertise, experience or skill pre-requisites are required to become a board member.
"A key question is whether boards of management in their current form are fit for purpose?''
In the vast majority of schools, the chairperson of the board of management is still appointed by the local bishop.
A survey carried out by the IPPN found that 47pc of chairpersons were either Catholic parish priests or nuns, or Church of Ireland rectors.
The IPPN carried out their survey in 2007 and 2010. The number of priests and nuns running school boards is thought to have declined since then.
But the job is still in the gift of the school patron, who is the local Catholic or Church of Ireland bishop in 95pc of schools, according to the IPPN report.
Even if a priest is reluctant to chair a board his bishop may insist on it, the survey suggests.
The present structure is a legacy from a centuries-old British system where the local priest managed the school, appointing staff and maintaining buildings.
In the 1970s, Irish legislation retained local priests as chairmen, and tacked on boards, made up of parents, teachers and community representatives.
There are growing signs of resentment among school board members that the chairperson is imposed from outside.
According to the IPPN report, 45pc of principals felt chairpersons were appointed "because of their religious vocation''.
The report added: "A high proportion of board members were unhappy with the imposition of a chairperson.''
The report said many board members believed the chairpersons should be elected by boards themselves and that this would bring greater cohesion to decision-making.
The impetus for change is not just coming from liberal parents, teachers and others who want to rid schools of church control.
In recent years the Catholic church itself has shown itself to be increasingly weary of its role in education.
The IPPN report highlighted the number of clergy who found their role as chairmen of school boards as "onerous, time-consuming and distracting from their core work as priest".
Supporters of the school system's reliance on volunteers argue that it ensures that schools are grounded in their communities. But the IPPN report suggests that this does not work everywhere.
The report found that one third of all primary schools, and two-thirds of schools in poorer areas, did not have anyone on the board who could act as treasurer, or offer financial advice.
Small schools, in particular, can have great difficulty in finding volunteers with suitable expertise.
The report highlights the case of one parish in the West of Ireland where there are five schools. The governing structures are extremely cumbersome, and the parish priest chairs the board of three schools.
The total number of children in the five schools was 211, representing 93 families. The management structure required the appointment of 40 board members.
In the West of Ireland parish, cited in the report, there is plenty of duplication in school administration. Schools compete to enlist community representatives with the necessary skills to run a school.
In order to combat these problems, the IPPN says smaller schools should be encouraged to pool their resources with shared governance structures.
The IPPN also wants improved training and professional expertise to be made available on a regional basis.
One chairperson, consulted for the IPPN report, said: "I have 19 years' experience working on boards of management and have not yet had one day's training for the job.''
Sean Cottrell said a revamp is needed because the rules governing schools are now a lot more complex.
He said that when boards of management were first set up back in the 1970s, primary education was largely unregulated.
"Now, some 20 pieces of legislation have a direct effect on primary schools.
"However willing and enthusiastic, is it fair to expect volunteers to take responsibility for growing levels of human resource, financial, legal, technological and construction issues that routinely cross their desks?'
"Volunteers on boards of management are expected to pick it up as they go along,'' he added.