Monday 16 September 2019

Church losing grip on schools as new figures show rise in multi-denominational sector

The growth is most dramatic at primary level Photo: PA
The growth is most dramatic at primary level Photo: PA
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

A small but clear slip in Catholic Church dominance of Irish education is highlighted in new figures showing a 4pc rise in pupils in multi-denominational schools this year.

The growth is most dramatic at primary level, where there was a year-on-year, 7.7pc jump in enrolments in the multi-denominational sector.

It far outstripped the 0.4pc increase in pupils in Catholic schools, amid an overall rise of 0.8pc in primary enrolments, to 559,569, last September.

The trend at post-primary is similar, with multi-denominational school enrolments up 2.8pc, compared with 0.4pc for Catholic schools - against an overall 1.5pc rise in pupil numbers.

In a big turnabout, the 349 multi-denominational schools at second level now outnumber the 346 schools with a Catholic ethos.

The figures released by the Department of Education are based on preliminary enrolment data for the country’s 4,000 primary and post-primary schools in September.

As the baby boom that started in the late 1990s continues to work its way through the system, September enrolments were up 9,799, to a record 922,458.

Education Minister Joe McHugh said the data highlighted the rise in the school-going population and reflected “the important changes taking place in the patronage of our schools, with more choice available to parents,”

The demand for greater choice can be seen in an overall, 3.6pc increase in pupils attending multi-denominational primary and second-level schools, compared with a 0.4pc  rise in Catholic schools.

As a result, at primary level, the share of pupils in Catholic schools dipped to 90.3pc, against 90.6pc in 2017.

The growing number of multi-denominational primary schools now have 32,060 pupils, 5.7pc of all enrolments and up from 5.4pc in 2017.   Church of Ireland primary schools have 16,515 pupils (3pc) in September, while other faiths accounted for 5,942 enrolments (1.1pc).

Enrolments in post-primary schools stood at 362,889 in September, 185,963 of which were in Catholic schools, 162,624 were in multi-denominational schools while 12,478 pupils were in the Church of Ireland sector.

The faster growth of enrolments in the multi-denominational sector, at both levels, should come as no surprise in the changing cultural landscape, but the figures underline the shift that is happening, albeit slowly.

Demand from parents for a more pluralist education system means that new schools being built in areas of population growth are almost exclusively of a multi-denominational ethos.

Since 2008, the number of multi-denominational schools at post-primary level has increased  from 321 to 349, while the number of Catholic schools dropped from 361 to 346. New post-primary schools also tend to be larger than older schools.

Over the same period at primary level, the number of multi-denominational schools rose from 73 to 119.   While they represent only a tiny fraction of the now, 2,776 Catholic primary schools, this number is  down  nine since 2017 and by  100 in the last 10 years.

At primary level, in particular, the Catholic Church is no longer applying to be the patron of new schools.

As well as that, a small number of previously Catholic-run schools have transferred to a multi-denominational patron as part of the divestment initiative announced in 2012. The Catholic Church committed to handing over some of their schools in areas of stable population to cater for the demand for growing diversity.

But progress has been extremely slow, and the initiative was refreshed earlier this year with surveys of parents of pre-school children in 16 suburbs or towns about whether they want a local Catholic school to transfer to a non-religious patron. The outcome of that process is awaited.

The newly released Department of Education data shows how small schools remain a distinctive feature of  Irish education with 708 –22.8pc - having 60 or fewer pupils,  representing just 4.4pc of the total enrolments.

However, since 2010 the number of small primary schools, which are mainly in rural areas, decreased by 10.4pc, and the number of pupils attending these schools has decreased by 14.8pc

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