PARENTS are to start voting on who they want to run their local school in a historic step for Irish education.
The move is aimed at reducing the dominance of the Catholic Church in primary education and handing over some of the 92pc of schools it currently controls to other patron bodies.
The church agrees that greater choice is required to reflect recent cultural and ethnic changes and will divest schools to other patrons in line with parental demand.
From today, surveys are being carried out in five of 44 initial areas where the Department of Education has identified a potential demand for greater diversity because of limited choice and no plans to open a new school.
The five areas are: Arklow, Co Wicklow; Castlebar, Co Mayo; Tramore, Co Waterford; Trim, Co Meath and Whitehall, Dublin, while the remaining 39 will vote in November.
Parents and guardians of pre-school and primary schoolchildren in each area will be surveyed and they will have to supply the PPS number of the parent in receipt of child benefit to confirm that they are eligible to participate.
Parents will initially be asked if they want a wider choice of school patrons, and will then be asked to vote in order of preference for the alternative patrons who have expressed an interest in running schools in their areas.
They'll also be asked if they prefer single sex or co-educational schools and if they would prefer an Irish-speaking or English-speaking school.
The Department of Education will run local media campaigns to get the word out, while information will also be available in schools and from the patron bodies.
The survey will largely be conducted online, but there will also be a paper-based option for parents, and surveys must be submitted before November 9.
If a demand for alternative patronage is identified, the department will explore with the existing patrons the transfer of patronage of schools.
It is impossible to estimate how many of the 3,000 Catholic primary schools will ever be handed over, and at what pace, but Education Minister Ruairi Quinn wants to name the first batch by next June.
The surveys follow on from recommendations from the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, which set out a roadmap for the handover process.As well as providing greater choice on grounds of religion, the advisory body also highlighted a need for more all-Irish schools.
Mr Quinn described it as a historic opportunity for parents to reshape the primary school landscape for generations to come and urged all those eligible to make sure that their voices were heard.
He said for many parents this would be the first time they would have a real say in the type of primary school they want their children to go to, whether it was denominational, multi-denominational, all-Irish or another kind.
The survey process will be overseen by the independent New Schools Establishment Group and detailed reports on the outcomes will be published.
The department has set up a free helpline for anyone who has any difficulties with the survey -- 1800 303621 -- which will be open Monday to Friday, 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5pm.