In my opinion... Paul Rowe
There is much talk these days about the role of religion in school, about admissions policies and the availability of school places throughout the country. It is to be applauded that Government plans are finally afoot to tackle these thorny issues. From Educate Together's point of view, these plans are both timely and urgent.
Educate Together is facing unprecedented demand from parents and families for its equality-based schools. In 2017, there are more children on its waiting lists than the 23,000 pupils that attend Educate Together's 90 primary and second-level schools. As a severely under-resourced independent charity working within the structures of the state education system, Educate Together is limited in what it can do to address this demand.
The continued practice of state-funded schools discriminating on religious grounds in their enrolment policies is making the situation worse. This so-called 'baptism barrier,' alongside the acute shortage of Educate Together school places, is placing considerable stress upon many parents around the country as they scramble to find school places for their children.
That's why the Government's newly announced 'reconfiguration' plan is so important. This plan aims to speed up the transfer of religious-run schools to non-denominational and multi-denominational school patrons and create real alternatives for parents. However, the proposed plan has some fundamental flaws.
The plan gives the Catholic Church continued undue influence on education as it leaves the final say in whether schools are transferred - and, crucially, to whom - to current patrons; mostly Catholic bishops.
There is no provision to assess the needs of families in the general area and in essence, the legitimate preferences of families play second fiddle to the preferences of the Church. The process is to be overseen by the Education and Training Boards (ETBs), which are themselves also applying to run the schools in their role as patron of Community National Schools (CNS).
It is a matter of public record that CNS schools were designed primarily to ensure that children from Catholic backgrounds are prepared for Catholic sacraments in school and are the Church's preferred alternative model.
Also on the public record is the fact that CNS schools deliver 'Goodness Me, Goodness You' - a programme described as 'faith nurturing'. The current proposed process is based on an unacceptable conflict of interest where the ETB is running a process in which it is also an applicant.
There is a very real danger here that, instead of church-managed Catholic schools, the only change will be to state-managed Catholic schools. Remember, faith-based schools still account for 96pc of all primary schools in the country so while these schools may change their management - from church to ETB - their ethos will remain the same.
This is not the real change that many families around Ireland are calling for; it is more of the same.
Educate Together is proposing a fair, transparent and equal reconfiguration plan, which puts parental wishes where they should be: at the centre of the process. Here's what it involves:
* Fairness - families in the 16 areas still waiting for their Educate Together schools under the 2012/2013 Government scheme should get them as soon as possible. They've waited long enough.
* Transparency - the Government should appoint an independent and representative advisory group to supervise the reconfiguration process that is acceptable to all patrons and parent groups.
* Equality - a nationwide confidential survey of parents of pre-school and primary school children should be run by an impartial state agency to find out the true profile of parental demand for schools of different types. The Government could then allocate school places and resources fairly.
Educate Together is urging the Education Minister to reconsider this flawed reconfiguration plan and to ensure that it meets high standards of transparency and equality and that all stakeholders are fairly represented in the process.
Most of all we urge him to listen to the families that have been advocating for real change in the Irish education system for so long.
Paul Rowe is CEO of Educate Together