THE Catholic Church is being told to hand over another 23 primary schools in an historic shake-up of the eduction system designed to offer parents more choice.
Department of Education surveys in 43 towns and suburbs over the past six months found that two-thirds of parents wanted a more diverse range of schools -- meaning a reduction of the church's overwhelming dominance of school patronage.
The results of the consultation with 10,000 parents on future control of local schools can be revealed today, with Education Minister Ruairi Quinn pointing out that a majority of areas surveyed had shown sufficient parental demand for wider choice of schools.
He insisted: "We cannot ignore this call for change."
Meanwhile, the fate of 1,000 small rural schools hangs in the balance as they are considered too small to satisfy an "optimum" threshold for value for money.
A new report, to be published soon, will recommend that the optimum future size for Irish schools is four teachers and 80 students or more.
Mr Quinn, who will today address two teachers' unions, has been accused of leaving thousands of pupils and parents in limbo if their school does not meet the minimum size.
Mr Quinn is now overseeing a period of massive change within the schools system as the issues of patronage and small rural schools both come to a head.
His department now wants detailed proposals from the bishops on divesting schools within six months, in a significant shift towards multi-denominational education.
But early transfers do not appear on the cards after a senior Catholic Church educationalist questioned the calculations involved.
Surveys in 38 areas were undertaken in January-February among parents of children under the age of 12.
They were targeted at towns and suburbs where there is a relatively stable population and, therefore, little prospect of an additional school being built.
The demand for a change of patronage at 23 of these 38 primary schools is on top of five schools around the country which were previously identified by the department, and where the Church has already been told to transfer control.
The department will now be contacting the Catholic patron in each of the newly identified areas to request that they consider the options.
Mr Quinn said he was confident of a generous response from the existing patron – the local Catholic bishop in each of the areas – to "the clear demand for change".
In practical terms, it means that in any of these areas, where there may be several local Catholic schools, mergers will be necessary to free up a building for a school under different patronage.
Where change is favoured, the multi-denominational Educate Together is the top choice and has been nominated as the patron for 25 schools, including in the five areas previously identified.
Two towns will see the establishment of English language, new-style Community National Schools, run by the local Vocational Education Committee.
And in one area, an Irish language school under the patronage of An Foras Patrunachta is recommended. Most of the areas surveyed already had a Gaelscoil option for parents deemed capable of accommodating demand for Irish language medium schools.
Paul Rowe, of Educate Together, said the results clearly showed demand for diversity of school type exists across the country.
However, while 10,000 responses were gathered, Fr Michael Drumm of the Catholic Schools Partnership said the participation rates of parents in the surveys were low. He said that within each area the responses only varied from 13pc to 26pc and advised against drawing conclusions.
He said there was a need for much closer analysis of the figures and consultation with communities on the ground
For example, Fr Drumm said in Ballina, where the department is recommending an Educate Together school, parents of only 2.2pc of existing primary pupils expressed a preference for an English-language multi-denominational school.
And he warned the proposals could involve much greater displacement for pupils in an existing school than those the department is seeking to accommodate.
The Catholic Church controls about 2,840, or 90pc, of almost 3,200 primary schools in Ireland.
While the 28 schools earmarked for change represent less than 1pc of this, developments over the coming months will be closely watched as they could mark a watershed in Church-state relations over school patronage.
The department set the minimum enrolment sufficient for a four-teacher school as the benchmark for deciding on whether there was sufficient demand for change.
A total of 10,715 valid responses were received during the surveys, and were checked against data held by the Department of Social Protection to ensure that the children listed were linked to PPS numbers given.
It followed the five pilot surveys, which were conducted last October and November – all of which showed a demand for Educate Together schools.