Giving parents choice of schools
Race is on to become second most popular type of primary school
Education Minister Richard Bruton has announced plans to create more choice for parents by opening more non-Catholic schools, at both primary and post-primary level.
Whatever progress is made on this latest initiative, the Catholic Church will continue to be the single biggest patron, by far. Even the Government's most ambitious target will not cause a huge dent in its dominance in education.
But the minister has created a competition for the second most popular primary school model - between Educate Together and the newer-style community national schools (CNS), which are under the umbrella of local education and training boards (ETBs).
At primary level, the Catholic Church runs about 90pc of the 3,200 schools, while at post-primary, the religious (overwhelmingly Catholic) are sole patrons of 51pc of schools and share patronage in many others.
Mr Bruton has set out on a path to increase the total number of multi-denominational schools from the current level of 137 - 108 at primary and 29 at post-primary (with a further 330 interdenominational) - to a total of 400 by 2030 - about 10pc of all schools. In the short term, he wants an additional 20 new multi-denominational schools opening per year.
Educate Together has been around since 1978, battling against the establishment to offer an alternative to parents who do not want to send their children to a religious-run school.
It has been a slow process, but it has a 30-year head start and, this September, there will be at least 79 Educate Together primary schools, against 11 community national schools (CNS), the first of which opened in 2007. Mr Bruton's declared support for the CNS model has given a boost to efforts by ETB Ireland to quicken its pace.
The key difference between the two is that Educate Together does not offer any religious instruction during the school day. While they have classes in ethical education, it is left to parents to make their own arrangements, or not, for faith formation, outside school hours.
Community national schools offer a hybrid between the traditional denominational school and Educate Together. There is no baptism barrier to entry, and in place of a daily class on Catholicism, they offer a multi-belief programme called Goodness me Goodness You. On top of that, they also facilitate faith education within the school day - for all faiths, if asked. Pupils are broken into different groups, accordingly, and in some schools the segregation happens over a four-week block period, once a year.
The minister and his officials are looking at a number of ways to advance the choice agenda.
Where choice is being offered, what say will parents have? In fact, parental preferences are key to deciding who gets to run a new or remodelled school and, as the new initiative gets underway, parents should not underestimate their role.
The opening of a brand new school has been the main method of improving diversity, but it is limited to areas where new families abound, often entirely new communities, such as in the Dublin commuter belt. They may also start up in established areas, where there is a concentration of new families, a recent example of which was the announcement on an Educate Together school in the Drumcondra/Marino area in Dublin.
The various patron bodies bidding for such schools canvas the support of parents and Educate Together has been the undoubted front runner. Is that down to their different approach to religion or a lack of familiarity with the newer CNS model?
ETB Ireland (ETBI) is preparing to raise the profile of community national schools. ETBI general secretary Michael Moriarty says they will be appointing a development officer to promote the model and aim to have at least one CNS in each of their 16 regions by the end of 2017. Their existing 11 schools are located in four regions.
The Department of Education is also continuing discussions with the Catholic Church about handing over a school in each of 28 established communities where parents have expressed sufficient demand for choice to warrant divestment of a school from Catholic control.
In almost 20 of those areas, parents are still waiting for that to happen. Again parental preferences are central to deciding on the new patron, although it is a number of years since the Department of Education canvassed their views.
Joint patronage is also being explored as a way of increasing diversity. Paul Rowe of Educate Together offers some views on the page opposite.
Such partnerships are most likely between ETBs and the Catholic Church. It would allow the CNS brand to grow in established communities, while a church, whose priests are increasingly thinly spread, could relieve itself of the burden of day-to-day running of schools. Perhaps more importantly for the church, it would offer certain guarantees in relation to faith education.
Fr Michael Drumm of the Catholic Schools Partnership sees potential in situations where small schools are being amalgamated. We don't know how many of those there might be, and, in rural Ireland at least, the Government is committed to consultation with parents on any such moves.
It's a question of watch this space to see how many amalgamations the church wants to happen.
A multi-belief approach
Citywest and Saggart Community National School, outside Dublin, has children from 31 different nationalities and 10 different religious and secular beliefs.
It is oversubscribed and priority is given to siblings and, after that, pupils are selected on the basis of chronological age.
Its multi-belief approach to religion is based on Goodness Me Goodness You, a story-based programme with weekly themes, such as peace and love, through which pupils explore together their own beliefs and those of others.
Principal Seamus Conboy says beyond that schools have different approaches, and it depends on what they negotiate with parents.
He says the only group of parents at Citywest and Saggart that have also sought faith-specific education within school hours are Catholics. This year, the school had its first group of pupils making their First Communion.
He says: "Once a week a teacher of an infants class, which had finished for the day, took this group for sacramental education, while the rest of the class continued with Goodness Me Goodness You. It was not sacramental preparation, we don't do any of that. It is done by parish workers."