Details of the negotiations on the new VEC primary school revealed in the Irish Independent yesterday illustrate the dangers of building a new model State school on the needs of powerful religious bodies rather than the rights and needs of parents and children.
Designing an entirely new model of State provision in this way will not lead to a robust and effective model of education. It leaves the suspicion in many people's minds that the model is being configured primarily to facilitate the withdrawal of the Catholic Church from the management of primary schools while at the same time bestowing on it a privileged position in the new arrangements.
This will not provide the choice that our system urgently needs and will not address the human rights issues that are driving the demand for the State to involve itself directly in the patronage of primary schools. As the body that has been highlighting these issues over many years, Educate Together considers that the approach being adopted is shortsighted and defective. In some of our early schools we were compelled to adopt an approach similar to that being proposed in this pilot.
It proved to be educationally unsound and led to difficult and complex negotiations that have resulted in the current Educate Together model in which children are not segregated according to religion within the statutory school day.
In contrast, the VEC pilot, as announced, involves the compulsory registration and separation of children from the age of four, according to their parents' religion. Such practices have been shown to be socially divisive, unethical and educationally flawed. In a primary school class, they critically impinge on the socialisation of children and are counter-productive to the aim of preparing young people for a society in which religious discrimination is illegal.
The details revealed yesterday suggest that there is already an agreement to give religious bodies authority over the employment of teachers and a wide range of privileges within a State school. It involves the unequal provision of State services between children whose families belong to 'main' religions and those who do not.
Under current equality legislation, there are no exceptions that allow the State to put in place such discriminatory practices, which would therefore appear to be open to legal challenge. The proposed model also raises unanswered questions about the rights of parents and children, employment issues for teachers, and the autonomy of managerial authority.
We have already seen considerable inequity in the manner in which this model is being rolled out in Dublin 15.
This raises an image of State schools that are preferentially resourced whilst other national schools continue to be starved of funds and are bound by different rules.
Such developments mock the concept of "cherishing all of the children of the nation equally".
The critical element of this process is that the parents in the area have had no say in the design or designation of these new schools. They are not being developed as an emergency response in an area where no other patron is available, as the government has stated. Instead a model is being imposed in neighbourhoods where Educate Together had agreed to open schools in 2008 and where a very significant number have expressed a preference for an Educate Together school.
In Diswellstown, for example, parents of over 250 children have sought places in a new Educate Together school that is waiting for recognition and access to State-owned facilities.
The details revealed yesterday suggest that the 'consultation' process repeatedly referred to by ministers has to date been an exercise in governmental window dressing. Over the past year, there has been no real engagement or dialogue. Most official partners in education have only been invited to a single two-hour briefing with no follow-up or response. Our impression was that the key details of the new model had been decided behind closed doors. It would seem that the Government's practice is once again to present a fait accompli and then announce a consultation process designed to retrospectively validate a decision already made. This approach is dangerous. It prevents the development of agreed progress and is against the Government's public commitment to partnership. Rather than being an example of timely decision-making, it tends to obscure real issues and may lead to expensive mistakes.
We hope that the conference announced by the minister, Mary Hanafin, will lead to greater clarity and real engagement with education providers and the public on the Government's plans.
It is also to be hoped that when the legislation necessary to enable a VEC to become a patron of a primary school is presented to the Dail, there will be sufficient latitude in the law to allow this model to evolve to properly meet the rights of parents and children.
Paul Rowe is chief executive of Educate Together