Monday 16 September 2019

Catholic primary school handover put on ice after row over wildly inaccurate claims

Recognition: Monsignor Dan O’Connor, of the Catholic Primary School Management Association. Photo: Tom Burke
Recognition: Monsignor Dan O’Connor, of the Catholic Primary School Management Association. Photo: Tom Burke
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The controversial plan for the possible handover of a Catholic primary school to a multi-denominational patron has been put on ice, for several months at least.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin is delaying ballots of parents in the north Dublin community where the idea was mooted, following a week of fury, confusion and incorrect claims about the practical effect of change.

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And Education Minister Joe McHugh offered a reassurance that there was "no pressure" being put on parents and "no immediate urgency" about the matter,

Parents of pupils in eight diocesan schools in Portmarnock, Malahide and Kinsealy were due to vote next week as part of a process to establish whether there was enough support in any of the schools for a change of patronage.

But ahead of those votes, strong opposition emerged, with letters from some schools warning that they would not be able to celebrate events such as Christmas, St Patrick's Day and Shrove Tuesday under a different patron.

Concerns were also raised about the employment conditions of teachers and other school staff under a different patron body. Many of the assertions were wildly inaccurate and the schools were accused of scaremongering. Mr McHugh entered the fray, tweeting that they should "not be setting a bad example" by making claims that had no basis in fact.

However, the furore forced a pause for thought and the ballots have been postponed until after the publication of an earlier survey of pre-school parents in the area. It was this survey, conducted last year as part of the wider, Department of Education-led divestment process, where demand for greater choice in ethos emerged, giving rise to the approach to the eight schools.

But it will be months, at least, before the matter raises its head again; the Department of Education has set "before the end of June" as the deadline for the publication of the report on that survey - and similar ones conducted in 15 other areas around the country. With the school year drawing to a close, there would be practical difficulties in arranging meetings with parents and ballots before the final term ends.

Hard lessons have been learned.

The approach to schools in Malahide , Portmarnock and Kinsealy jumped the gun on the agreed divestment process - such approaches are intended as the second stage and only to happen after the reports on the pre-school parent surveys were published.

The debacle this week also exposed shortcomings in the consultations, which allowed such a level of misleading information to be shared.

Any further moves in Malahide, Portmarnock and Kinsealy, or elsewhere, about divestment will come hand-in-hand with a "plain English" guide for parents and staff about what a change of patronage would mean.

The Department of Education is working on a document that will answer the sort of frequently asked questions that arise in this context.

However, even with a societal appetite for greater diversity in school choice - 90pc are controlled by the Catholic Church - when it comes to individual communities, the events of this week highlight the strong attachment to the local school. The plainest of English may not win communities over.

Other patron bodies, extremely concerned about how their schools have been portrayed, want an opportunity to set out their stall directly with the communities involved, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen.

In his letter to schools calling off the ballots, Mgr Dan O'Connor, the Episcopal Vicar of Education in the Archdiocese of Dublin, said it was recognised that the prospect of change could be difficult and that was vital that all stakeholders were fully informed.

He added that the Archdiocese was committed to working with the minister and other patron bodies in providing choice and noted that the diocese had successfully divested schools in four other areas.

Mgr O'Connor said they were also working with two other schools that had expressed an interest in changing from Catholic patronage to an alternative patron body.

Minister McHugh acknowledged the statement from the archdiocese and the acceptance that misinformation was being spread about what a change in patronage would mean. He also welcomed the postponement of a vote.

He reiterated that there was "no pressure" on the communities in Portmarnock, Malahide and Kinsealy or elsewhere to decide on their views towards a possible patronage change and nor was there any immediate urgency.

Irish Independent

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