CATHOLIC bishops came under pressure yesterday on the strength of their commitment to hand over some of the 90pc of primary schools they control to other patrons.
The head of the body advising on the provision of greater school choice pressed church representatives for assurances that they would be "active agents" in change.
Professor John Coolahan is chair of the Forum on Pluralism and Patronage, which yesterday began three days of public hearings with education organisations on issues around the divestment process.
In its written submission to the forum, the Council for the Education of the Irish Episcopal Conference said any process of change of patronage must be driven by parents from the ground up, and could not be led by patrons or trustees of existing schools
Prof Coolahan picked up on this point during an exchange with representatives of the bishops' education council: Bishop Leo O'Reilly, Bishop Brendan Kelly and Fr Michael Drumm.
Dr O'Reilly told Prof Coolahan that the bishops wanted to see diversity, but change had to come from the "bottom up, rather than top down", as they wanted to get away from any notion of bishops "issuing edicts".
Prof Coolahan said he understood they did not want to lead the process, but he wanted confirmation that the church was "proactively engaged in seeking a resolution to a national dilemma".
Fr Drumm said there was "no doubt" about their commitment, but that it could only be done in partnership with the State and the public needed more information.
He said some schools had been approached about the possibility of acting as a pilot project in the change process, but asked why they had been singled out. But he added this did not mean that they could not make progress.
One of the big issues to be decided is how support for a different patron will be measured, and whether it should be based on a vote among parents or the wider community.
Other challenges facing the change process include the legalities if a property is to be transferred, and the question of compensation for the property.
Dr O'Reilly described the complexities involved in school management ownership as a "triple lock". He said even if a patron decided to hand over a school, it also had to be approved by the board of managements and the trustees.
The Association of Trustees of Catholic Schools told the forum that it could happen that the decision by a patron to divest a particular school would be contested by the board of management.
The forum, which is also examining research and practices on patronage and pluralism in schools in other countries, will report to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn in November.
Mr Quinn hopes to start implementing the changes next year.