Parents to get their say on whether local school should stay Catholic
Parents of pre-school children around the country will be asked to vote in the coming weeks on whether they want a greater choice of primary schools in their area.
The upcoming parental surveys are the latest milestone in moves to reduce the dominance of the Catholic Church in primary education through the handover of some of its schools to other patron bodies.
Education Minister Richard Bruton is seeking to revive the divestment process launched in 2012, which resulted in the transfer of only 10 of about 2,800 primary schools under the patronage of Catholic bishops.
Mr Bruton's Action Plan for Education 2018, launched yesterday, commits to surveys before the end of March, and agreement on detailed arrangements on how any school transfers would work by the end of June.
The surveys will be conducted by local education and training boards (ETBs), which will compile a report on the process to be published on the Department of Education website.
Where demand for the transfer of at least one Church-run school is identified, the local bishop will be expected to consult with the school and parents about options offered by other patron bodies.
Details of the survey process are still being finalised - but it is expected they will be carried in towns or areas where an ETB believes there is likely to be demand from families for greater diversity.
The new approach to offering parents greater school choice is called 'reconfiguration', and was announced by Mr Bruton a year ago.
It differs from the earlier divestment process in that it is parents of pre-school children who are being canvassed, rather than parents of existing pupils in Catholic schools being asked their views about their school's future.
Reconfiguration also involves a financial "sweetener" for the Church, with proposals to lease schools from the bishops rather than getting embroiled in the legally complicated process of property transfers.
Transfers had met with resistance from the Church as the property owners, and, in some cases, local communities that had invested in the schools.
Where a handover is agreed, the amount paid to the bishop for leasing the property would vary - a range of €10,000-€20,000 a year was previously mentioned.
Before Mr Bruton announced the reconfiguration process, he and his officials consulted with the bishops and other education stakeholders.
The 2018 action plan was launched by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who said it was building on achievements in 2016 and 2017 and embedding the extensive reforms already taking place in the education system with a focus on excellence and innovation. It sets out more than 370 actions to be taken this year as part of the "realistic goal" of making Ireland's education system the best in Europe by 2026.
Meanwhile, the professional standards body for teachers says practical solutions are urgently needed to "pull back from the crisis" looming over teacher shortages.
The latest meeting of a Teaching Council consultative forum on teacher supply was brought forward from May to yesterday in "recognition of the seriousness of the issue".
The forum, set up in 2014, has already produced two reports, and council director Tomás O Ruairc said the clear consensus yesterday was that "action is what we need now".