PARENTS will start voting within weeks on whether they want to hand over a Catholic primary school in their area to another patron body.
In a ground-breaking move, the Department of Education will seek the views of parents in five areas on the demand for a change in patronage, and their preference for who should run the schools.
The Irish Independent has learned that three of the five areas to be surveyed are Trim, Co Meath; Tramore, Co Waterford; and Arklow, Co Wicklow.
The fourth and fifth will be in Dublin and Co Mayo, although final decisions have yet to be made on the particular areas.
The surveys of five areas is the first step in the process and will be followed in November with similar plebiscites in 39 other towns or suburbs identified as potentially ripe for change.
The historic move is aimed at reducing the control of the Catholic Church in primary education and offering parents greater choice to reflect the cultural and religious mix in Irish society generally.
The Catholic Church currently runs 92pc of primary schools and has accepted that it is no longer tenable for it to operate so many schools. Apart from societal changes, there are fewer priests to help with the running of schools.
The areas selected for surveys are where primary schools are exclusively of a Catholic ethos, or where there is very limited choice, with, perhaps, one non-Catholic school among six or more.
Each of the 44 areas has been selected because each has a relatively stable population and so the need for diversity cannot be addressed by opening new schools.
In June, the Department of Education invited patron bodies interested in taking over the running of schools in the 44 areas to lodge expressions of interest.
The survey will be online, or paper-based, and open to parents of a pre-school or school-going child, resident in the area concerned. The form, which will be returned to the department, will include a link to the website of each prospective patron body where parents can get more information about the type of school proposed.
Patron bodies are expected to actively campaign for support for their proposals, but will be subject to a code of practice.
Following the completion of the surveys, there will be consultations with communities in line with parental preferences, on the final shape of the primary school network in the area. It is impossible to estimate how many of the 3,000 Catholic primary schools will ever be handed over to another patron body, and at what pace.
However, based on the survey process about to get under way, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has set next June as the deadline for the naming of the first batch.