Wednesday 16 January 2019

Church preparing historic handover of primary schools

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

THE first official steps towards a historic handover of Catholic primary schools to other patron bodies will get under way shortly.

A softly, softly approach to the transfer is recommended with about 50 schools expected to be involved in initial efforts to switch patron.

Up to 47 towns and suburban areas of Dublin have been targeted for the first phase of the process.

These areas have 250 schools between them so, on average, one Catholic school in each area could be transferred to a new patron, such as the multi-denominational body, Educate Together.

But crucially, any decision to change the patronage of a school will have to have the support of local parents.

If parents agree, the Department of Education hopes that the handover of the first Catholic schools to another patron could start happening in about a year.

Where there is a demand for a change of patronage of a school in an area, parents would also have to agree on who that new patron should be, which may prove controversial.

The report of an expert group yesterday set out a roadmap for the handover process, which is aimed at creating greater choice of primary schools to reflect the changing social mix in Ireland.

As well as providing greater choice on grounds of religion, the advisory body also recommends that more all-Irish schools should emerge from the process to meet demand from parents.

The Forum of Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, chaired by leading educationalist Professor John Coolahan, deliberated for six months last year. It held public hearings and also received 247 submissions.

Currently, 96pc of the 3,200 primary schools are under the control of the churches, overwhelmingly the Catholic Church, which runs 92pc of them.

Concern

As well as recommending a process for the handover of schools, the advisory group suggests ways in which all schools can cater for children of different religious beliefs.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, who released the report yesterday, welcomed its findings.

He said "We live in a changed and changing nation. Primary school provision needs to reflect this changed society and provide for increased diversity. Parental choice should be our main concern" Mr Quinn has been an enthusiastic advocate of change and when he set up the forum last year he spoke of up to half of primary schools being transferred from the control of the Catholic Church.

However, the forum cautions against a 'big bang' approach and advises that change of patronage should happen in a phased way, taking account of the preferences of parents.

Mr Quinn will announce a plan of action for the change process in about a month.

The report recommends that the first phase of change would involve examining school patronage in 43 towns and four suburban areas in Dublin areas already identified as likely to have substantial demand for diversity.

These are areas where there is a stable population and also an existing demand for greater school choice and divesting from an existing patron, most often the Catholic Church.

The forum also calls for greater inclusivity in all schools, aimed at ensuring that these are as inclusive as possible and accommodate pupils of various belief systems.

One recommendation is that preparation for the sacraments have no part in the school day anywhere and that schools have a policy on the display of religious and non-religious artefacts , which are not exclusive to any one faith, but which have balance.

The forum is especially concerned about communities served by a single school, where transfer of patronage is not an option. There are about 1,700 of these, which are at least 3km from their nearest neighbour.

Irish Independent

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