Sunday 19 November 2017

Cash sweetener for handover of schools

Education Minister Richard Bruton gets his hands dirty during a science lesson with first-class pupils. Photo: Maura Hickey
Education Minister Richard Bruton gets his hands dirty during a science lesson with first-class pupils. Photo: Maura Hickey
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Education Minister Richard Bruton is offering a cash sweetener for the Church in a new push for the handover of Catholic schools to other patron bodies.

He plans to lease school properties from local bishops, rather than going through the legally complicated and time-consuming process of property transfers from Church ownership.

Where a handover is agreed, it is expected that, in most cases, the new patron will pay the church an annual rent of around €10,000-€20,000 a year.

Mr Bruton is seeking to breathe life into the stagnant divestment process that has seen only 10 schools switch from being under religious control since that initiative was launched in 2012.

The Government is committed to having a total of 400 primary and post-primary schools under multi-denominational or non-denominational patronage by 2030.

The new approach, being announced today, will involve knocking heads together in areas where there is a demand for at least one different type of school, multi- or non-denominational, with a view to working out a local agreement.

Mr Bruton is hoping for "live transfers" of existing schools, with the blessing of the local bishop and parents, and with staff and the majority of board of management members remaining in place.

Mr Bruton's attempt to break the divestment logjam will involve a two-stage process - an identification phase and an implementation phase.

The identification phase will be managed by local education and training boards (ETBs), which will identify towns or areas were there is likely to be demand for greater diversity.

This will be done through a survey of parents of pre-school children, asking whether they want the choice of a multi- or non-denominational school.

The ETB will write a report on the outcome, which will be published on the Department of Education website. Where demand for the transfer of at least one Church-run school is identified, bishops will be expected to consult with parents and the school about the options offered by other patrons.

Apart from managing the initial stage in the process, ETBs have a direct interest, in that they are patrons of 11 Community National Schools and have ambitions to grow that number.

Community National Schools are a hybrid between the traditional religious-run schools, which focus on teaching one religion, and the Educate Together model that provides for no religious teaching inside the school day.

Mr Bruton and his officials consulted with the bishops, different patron groups as well as other education stakeholders before developing the plans being announced today.

Mr Bruton has now written to the Catholic bishops outlining his proposals and seeking their nominations to working groups to develop detailed protocols for the process.

Even with a positive response from the various stakeholders, any progress is expected to be slow.

Mr Bruton has endorsed Community National Schools, but he said: "There was no one model that will provide the answer to this complex issue.

"There is room for a number of different providers to respond to different parental wishes, in the context of an expanding population and increasing demand for multi-denominational education."

Demand for change was previously identified in 28 areas, and the initial focus of the new initiative is likely to be on the 18 areas in which there has been no progress.

Of the 400-school target in the Programme for Government, 130 are already in existence, while more than 100 brand new schools will be multi- or non-denominational, which leaves up to 170 to be created through this process.

Irish Independent

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