Monday 26 August 2019

Katherine Donnelly: 'Nimbyism has taken hold of the divestment process'

  

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Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Nimbyism, the 'not in my backyard' response to change, has been a feature of the process of handing over Catholic primary schools to other patron bodies from the start.

There is general agreement that the primary school system needs to be rebalanced better to reflect the changes in modern Ireland. Even Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin has been a staunch proponent of the idea, believing that the current situation, where about nine out of 10 primary schools remain under the control of the Catholic Church, is no longer appropriate.

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Apart from a big decline in adherence to the Catholic faith and an influx of families of new religions and none to Ireland, there are practical considerations for the Church, such as a lack of priests who traditionally played a key role in the management of the schools.

But a decade of heated debate, including a major report, about reducing the control of the Church in primary education in particular, has barely dented its position.

The Church is no longer opening primary schools, but its schools have 90.3pc (505,053) of primary pupils on their books, a small dip from 90.7pc two years ago.

Over the same period, enrolments in multi-denominational schools rose to 5.7pc (32,060) from 5.4pc, much of the expansion in areas of population growth, where, perhaps, there was no school before.

There are more than 3,000 primary schools, almost 2,800 of which are Catholic.

Since former education minister Ruairi Quinn launched an initiative to divest some of those to other patron bodies, about 10 have changed hands, and some because it was convenient for another reason.

The divestment process got mired in legal issues about ownership of school properties and it largely hinged on amalgamations or closures, which, in themselves, can be costly and contentious.

What also became very obvious was that, wherever it was suggested, the reaction was that it may be a grand idea, but not in our school. It ran into the ground.

Mr Quinn's successor, Richard Bruton, relaunched it as the Reconfiguration for Diversity process, to look at "live" transfers and with a financial sweetener that would involve the leasing of property from bishops.

As an initial step, education and training boards (ETBs) were tasked with conducting surveys of pre-school parents in 16 areas to gauge the mood for greater choice.

Where a demand was identified, local bishops are being asked to tease it out with school communities.

Portmarnock-Malahide-Kinsealy is one of those areas and early indications are that some schools, at least, are in no mood for change.

Irish Independent

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