Will Church-free secondary schools get the go-ahead?
The multi-denominational group Educate Together is to step up its campaign to open its first second-level schools amid growing signs of Government reservations about the idea.
Parents from all over the country gathered at a second-level Educate Together information session in Dublin at the weekend.
Paul Rowe, the chief executive of the group which runs primary schools, called on parents to lobby public representatives for the opening of the new post-primary schools.
Over the past decade Educate Together has been the fastest growing educational sector in the state.
More than 10,000 pupils attend the multi-denominational schools at primary level and there are 56 primary schools, but the Department of Education has so far failed to give the go-ahead to the schools at second level. Although the group applied to be a second-level patron three years ago, the Department of Education has stalled on a decision on whether to recognise the schools.
If recent opinion surveys are anything to go by, religious control of schools is a major concern among parents, particularly in urban areas.
A recent Irish Times/MRBI poll indicated that 61pc of Irish adults believe the Catholic Church should give up control of primary schools.
Church control of second-level schools is less clear-cut than at primary level, with churches varying in their degrees of influence.
Schools in the voluntary sector have religious patronage; community schools cannot discriminate at entry, but tend to have a Catholic ethos, due to their origins; and schools run by the Vocational Education Committees (VECs) tend to be more secular, while continuing to teach religion in school.
A survey by researchers at Trinity College Dublin showed that 90pc of parents of pupils at existing Educate Together primary schools would send their kids to a second-level school under the same patronage given the choice.
An area such as Lucan, where there are five multi-denominational primary schools, is seen by Educate Together as an ideal location for a new school.
But recent decisions by the Department of Education to open new schools run by VECs including one in Lucan, have prompted speculation that it favours that model.
At a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, a senior Department of Education official, Frank Wyse, suggested that multi- denominational schooling is being delivered quite effectively by the VEC sector.
Some of the reservations of the minister and his officials may centre on Educate Together's proposed delivery of religious education.
In VEC Community Colleges students are, in theory at least, taught within their own faith (in practice that usually means Catholic).
In the proposed Educate Together schools, pupils will be taught an "ethical education curriculum''. This will include themes such as morality, spirituality, justice, equality and the environment.
Much of the publicity surrounding Educate Together schools has centred on their multi-denominational ethos. Less well publicised is their radical approach to second-level education.
According to the group's recently published blueprint for its proposed second-level schools, students would not be entered for the Junior Cert exams as a matter of course.
The group opposes streaming at second level, believing that it has a negative effect on student engagement and achievement.
The boundaries between subjects will be less strict than in traditional schools, with a strong emphasis on projects.
Educate Together suggests that students and parents should have a central role in decision-making, including input into the development and delivery of the curriculum.
For the moment, the department seems to be taking a cautious, and some might argue overly conservative approach to the issue, seeing the proposed schools as risky ventures.
Educate Together's critics see it as predominantly middle class and somewhat airy-fairy.
It may be untested at second level but the Educate Together model has certain advantages. On the plus side, the group has been broadly successful in setting up primary schools, meeting a huge demand for multi-denominational schooling, particularly in urban areas.
The active involvement of parents in the schools, particularly at their foundation, gives them a vitality that other institutions frequently lack.
Educate Together's plans for second level may chime with recent suggestions from industry and elsewhere that our current system places too much emphasis on rote learning, and not enough on critical thinking and problem solving.
A spokesman for Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe said he would bring to Government his recommendations on the further development of patronage in second-level schools in the near future.
If the minister continues to block Educate Together's second-level plans, thousands of parents must wait until after an election before their needs are fulfilled.