Discussions to start soon on transfer of Catholic schools transfer
Results of surveys of parents about greater school choice in 16 areas are now being analysed, writes Kim Bielenberg
The Minister for Education Richard Bruton is hoping that he can speed up the transfer of schools from the Catholic Church to non-religious patrons.
Over recent months, surveys have been held among parents in 16 pilot areas to gauge whether they want a greater choice of primary school. As well as a non-religious ethos, parents had the opportunity to state whether they wanted a gaelscoil.
Once results have been analysed, local consultations will be held to decide which schools can be transferred and which patrons should run them.
The figures from the last census in 2016 have strengthened the belief that the current system where 90pc of primary schools are under the control of the Catholic Church is outmoded.
While 78pc of the population is still classified as Catholic, the figure is a lot lower in the age bracket of young adults who will soon become parents. Among 27-year-olds, for example, the number of Catholics is as low as 60pc.
Successive education ministers and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin have argued there is a need to reduce the number of Catholic schools. But attempts to transfer schools to other patrons have yielded few positive results, and the process has been unwieldy and cumbersome.
A previous initiative by Ruairi Quinn in 2012, where the church was to relinquish control mostly through closures and amalgamations of schools, only resulted in 10 transfers.
The process of transferring patronage became bogged down in complex issues of land ownership. Archbishop Martin has admitted that there has been a "stubborn reluctance" to give up schools among elements in the church.
Minister Bruton (right) hopes to overcome this obstacle by relying on leases of the buildings, offering the church the opportunity to earn significant rent without losing ownership of the land. He also wants to rely on the transfer of schools that are still open, rather than waiting for closures or amalgamations.
Now that the findings of the 16 surveys are being analysed, discussions about the future of schools in some. or all of the areas, will start in coming months.
The main options available to parents would be:
l Educate Together - non denominational schools run by an independent patron that relies on government grants and charitable donations;
l Community National School - operated by local State-run education and training boards, with a multi-denominational ethos;
l Gaelscoil - Irish medium school, mainly under the patronage of An Foras Pátrúnachta, and may be denominational, multi-denominational or inter-denominational, depending on parents' wishes.
Educate Together schools have proved to be popular wherever they have opened in recent years. But in most of the cases where they were set to take over buildings as a result of divestments, the process has not been straightforward, according to Educate Together's New Schools Officer, Niamh McGarry.
Schools have opened in temporary accommodation, with teachers and parents not knowing from one year to the next where the school will be located. The new school in Trim was expected to move into an old convent school in the town, but it opened in a golf club on a temporary basis. Because of delays, the school is now in its second temporary home in an industrial estate.
"It is very difficult for schools to establish themselves when the future of their accommodation is not written in stone," says McGarry.
There is a common perception in education circles that the Catholic Church is well disposed to the community national school model. A number of Catholic primary schools have recently re-opened as community national schools after short closures. They include Two Mile Community National School in Kerry, Faughart in Louth, and Brannoxtown in Kildare
Kyle National School in Cork is also being transformed into a community national school without any closure. It is currently one of four Catholic national schools in the parish of Killeagh.
So how do the community national schools approach the issue of religion?
Seamus Conboy, Educational Policy and Development Officer with Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) says: "We define ourselves as multi-denominational rather than non-denominational. We take a pluralist rather than a secular approach - and all religions and beliefs are recognised and celebrated in the schools.
Pupils follow Goodness Me, Goodness You, a multi-belief and values education curriculum. A practice of allowing certain lessons to be set aside for faith formation was discontinued, and there is no faith formation during the school day.
In place of religious education, pupils at Educate Together schools have an Ethical Education programme looking at different belief systems.