THE Catholic Church is being asked to hand over five of its primary schools to the multi-denominational Educate Together in a historic step in Irish education.
The move is aimed at reducing the dominance of the church in primary education after a survey showing a demand for greater choice of school patrons.
But the Catholic bishops insist that the survey provides "significant affirmation" of Catholic schools and that it was clear a "very large number" of parents wished to have their children educated in Catholic schools.
In what is regarded as a "pointed statement", the bishops also questioned how representative the latest survey on school patronage was and said that while it reflected accurately the views of those who took part in the survey, a "large marjority" of parents did not participate in it.
The church runs 2,900 of 3,200 primary schools and has expressed a willingness to transfer some to other patron bodies in line with the wishes of parents.
However, such a break with tradition, will take time to work out and September 2014 is the earliest any physical change is expected to take place.
There is likely to be robust debate about which of perhaps five or six local Catholic schools in an area should be divested, and final arrangements may vary from place to place.
Department of Education surveys of parents in five towns and suburbs, published yesterday, show a demand for greater choice of school patron in each area – Arklow, Co Wicklow; Castlebar, Co Mayo; Tramore, Co Waterford; Trim , Co Meath; and Whitehall, Dublin.
Educate Together, which controls 65 primary schools, emerged as the first choice of alternative patron.
Many parents also showed a preference for Irish-language medium schools.
Earlier this year, an expert group on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector advised on a roadmap for the handover process.
Parents in 39 other areas will be surveyed in the new year.
The 44 areas have been selected because they have relatively stable populations, with little prospect of a new school opening in the coming years.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said that while many parents were happy with the schools already available, there was a clear demand from others for greater choice.
Educate Together CEO Paul Rowe said the results were confirmation that parents would like a choice of school type.
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said the consultation process must include the teaching staff whose employment rights must be respected.
A total of 1,788 valid survey responses were received, representing 3,494 children in the five areas.
Between 37pc to 50pc of respondents across the five areas supported a wider choice of patron. The percentage who said they would send their children to an alternative school patron if available ranged from 25pc to 35pc, while those who did not want to see more choice ranged from 35pc to 44pc.
Between 70pc and 80pc chose English medium schools, while the preference for Irish medium instruction ranged from almost 10pc to 21pc.
Of those parents seeking wider choice, Educate Together was the first preference of 56pc to 76pc.