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Bishops to hand over schools

THE biggest shake-up in Irish education for decades is set to begin with historic talks on the transfer of some of the country's 3,000 Catholic primary schools to the State.

The talks will commence next month between the Department of Education and Science and the Catholic bishops, who are Patrons of 92pc of the country's primary schools.

The outcome will mean greater choice for parents. But it will also mean an end to the day when the nearest primary school was almost certain to be a Catholic school.

The talks follow a letter from department Secretary General Brigid McManus to Catholic Church leaders asking them for a list of schools that they are willing to hand over.

But, so far, no such list of schools has been compiled.

Instead, the forthcoming talks are likely to centre on a process for identifying what schools can be transferred and how this could be done.

Nor have decisions been taken about who will run the schools that are transferred.

But it is clear that, in the future, there will be a greater number of schools provided by other patron bodies such as Educate Together, which runs multi-denominational schools, and VECs which are piloting Community National Schools.

Catholic sources welcomed the talks and stressed that they did not mean a withdrawal of the Church from primary education but a concentration in a reduced number of schools.

They said that legal questions would have to be resolved as the schools were held in trust for their local communities.

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One stumbling block could be compensation for the schools that are handed over, especially where parishioners have contributed significantly to the building and upkeep

But other sources pointed out that with the state coffers empty there was little money available to offer the Church for the properties.

The forthcoming report on abuse in the Dublin diocese will also make it difficult for the Church to demand public monies at a time when there is anger over the amount paid by the religious congregations for compensation to abuse victims.

In the Dail tomorrow, Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe faces questions about the talks from Labour's Ruairi Quinn who said that the legacy of history no longer met the reality of modern Ireland.

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"Nor does it allow the Catholic Church to genuinely develop its own role as one of six patron groups in the country," Mr Quinn said.

He added that, subject to Church agreement, new patrons, such as Educate Together, the gaelscoileanna and perhaps the VECs could manage some of the schools currently run by the Catholic Church.

"The remaining Catholic schools could enhance their own ethos with the involvement of committed practising Catholic parents and their children," he said.

A Church spokesman said that, in their June statement, the bishops had pointed out that in areas where the population had changed, there were sometimes more Catholic schools than were required by the local community.

"In these locations, this will mean reducing the number of Catholic schools, and we are ready to do this," the bishops said. "Of course we recognise that the local community, parents, staffs and boards and management, have to be consulted in any such change of patronage or ownership."

But the INTO expressed concerns about what it called a lack of openness in the whole issue of school governance.

INTO General Secretary John Carr reiterated his call for a forum on the future of primary education.

"We need open and transparent debate and discussion, not semi-secret initiatives. There must be an overall plan for education which cannot be constructed in an ad hoc manner," he added.

He said key issues needed to be aired in public such as where, when and by whom would decisions relating to any transfer of schools be made.


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