Sunday 15 December 2019

Series of 'turf wars' to erupt over control

John Walshe

EDUCATION Minister Batt O'Keeffe could unwittingly unleash a series of 'turf wars' over the control of individual primary schools around the country.

Take, for example, a Dublin suburb with five Catholic schools, two in the middle-class area, one in an area of mixed social housing and two in working-class areas.

How do you decide which school or schools to hand over?

Do you use criteria such as school size and local needs or a plebiscite where the articulate middle classes will vote in greater numbers, perhaps, than those from other parts?

Unanimous agreement will be impossible to achieve, so some parents' rights, not to speak of teachers' rights, will probably be trampled on, no matter what the decision.

The minister played 'pass the parcel' yesterday by saying the decision was fundamentally one to be made within the Catholic community, working closely with his department.

But the church made it clear it was unhappy if it was to be left with the decision entirely.

According to Bishop Leo O'Reilly, the church would have preferred a more thoughtful process.

Even when schools are selected for transfer, who gets them if they are not to be closed?

Again, the minister was vague yesterday saying this decision "will most likely involve an adaptation of the work of the Technical Working Group of the Commission on School Accommodation".

Make of that what you will, but groups like Educate Together and the Gaelscoileanna movement will be more than anxious to put their cases for taking over some of the 'surplus' schools to meet parents' needs.

They believe the department is leaning towards the VECs' Community National Schools model which is being 'trialled' in Co Dublin and in three more new areas in the autumn.

It may be administratively tidier to have the VECs involved in primary education, but the experiment is at an early stage and we don't yet know the full cost of these Community National Schools.

School closures or transfer of ownership is fraught with pitfalls as deep passions can be aroused over the potential loss of something held dear to a community.

That well-researched 'History of Ireland's School Inspectorate 1831-2008' by John Coolahan with Patrick F O'Donovan, carries a cautionary note for the current champions of change.

It recalls how the closure of small schools became official state policy in the mid-1960s with inspectors dispatched to be persuaders for closures at meetings in local communities.

The advice given to inspectors included the suggestion: "to have motor cars parked to facilitate speedy departure should that become necessary".

Might happen again.

Irish Independent

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