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'It tends not to be prime property that's handed over': 8 schools opened in 3 years under divestment

TheJournal.ie has spoken to the schools supposed to be offering choice to the parents of Ireland’s primary school pupils.

AS 96% OF Irish primary schools are religious-run, enrolment policies are coming under more and more scrutiny each September. In this three-day special series, TheJournal.ie explores the role religion plays in our classrooms and what’s being done in the sector.

As the sun set on the the last Sunday of August last year, Nuala Bourke had reason to be worried.

Tuam Educate Together – the primary school school she had been appointed principal of two months previous – was still under construction.

In houses in the locality, children were being put to bed just hours away from arriving at the school’s gates.

“The builders finished at 10pm on the Sunday night, ready for us to open on the Monday morning,” Bourke explains to TheJournal.ie. 

“With the divestment process, you can be quite late in getting your buildings.”

‘Greater acceptance of greater diversity’ 

Divestment – the process through which Tuam Educate Together was brought into being – has been at the centre of the Department of Education’s grand plans for greater equality since a report produced by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism was announced under Ruairí Quinn back in 2012.

“We live in a changed and changing nation,” the minister declared.

There is a general acceptance that a greater diversity of primary schooling is necessary.

5/12/2012 Budget Day Ruairí Quinn pictured in 2012 Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

The report warned against a “big bang” approach, and that changing of schools’ patronage (who runs them) should be gradual – with the first phase involving around 50 schools.

In the past three years, only eight schools have been created as part of the divestment process – that’s 0.2% of Ireland’s 3,266 primary schools.

So what has been done? Here is the breakdown of the schools that have been offered up. 

Of the eight schools that have been opened under the divestment process over the past three years (up to the end of the last academic year):

  • Six are being housed in temporary accommodation
  • Two have not been guaranteed a permanent long-term building
  • Only one is being housed in a property handed over by the Catholic church

Besides the building handed over by the Catholic church, the schools are currently being housed in:

  • Two former Teagasc training centres
  • A former HSE Medical Centre
  • A former golf club
  • A building leased from Christian schools’ organisation Edmund Rice Schools Trust
  • A purpose-built creche
  • A former Church of Ireland school building

Speaking to parents, teachers and principals from the divested schools, TheJournal.ie  has found facilities unsure of long-term accommodation and divestment of property from the church – an assumed cornerstone of the process – often delayed or absent.

What is divestment? 

With 96% of the primary education system under religious patronage, Ireland’s non-religious parents are often left scrambling for a handful of school places.

Four years ago – with pressure coming down from the United Nations for something to change – the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism was set up to find alternatives.

“It was clear from the outset that there is a compelling need for the patronage of our schools to reflect the changes that have already taken place in wider society,” Quinn said at the time.

And how was this going to be done?

The report, the minister said:

Examines how demand for different types of patronage can be met in certain areas of stable population by divesting (or transferring) patronage of certain existing schools where there is evidence of parental demand for same.

Reading that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that divestment involved one patron giving up its school and another stepping into its place.

Rather – while this can be part of the process – divestment is actually more strictly characterised as the creation of a school in an area of stable population, regardless of whether patronage is transferred.

Today, this remains the bedrock of the government’s plans for creating greater equality in the primary school system.

In June, Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced his plans to speed up the process to create 400 more multi-denominational schools before 2030.

6/7/2016 School Admissions Bills Education Minister Richard Bruton pictured at the announcement of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill last month Source: RollingNews.ie

‘A degree of uncertainty’ 

“The situation in relation to the accommodation for the school is somewhat problematic,” says David Graham, a member of the parents’ association for Malahide/Portmarnock Educate Together NS.

Opened in 2014, the school has already moved once and is currently located in a Teagasc property on the Malahide Road in Kinsealy.

“The building itself is an excellent building and the facilities in it are fine,” Graham says.

“But the Department [of Education] seems to decide on divestment and decide on building schools before they have any idea on where the schools are going to be accommodated.

So there is a degree of uncertainty in relation to the long-term location for the school.

malahide national school The former Teagasc building where the Malahide / Portmarnock Educate Together National School is located Source: Google Maps

Although the school has been given confirmation that their initial one-year lease on the property will be extended for a further year and while it “may well end up being the permanent location”, nothing is certain.

Tuam Educate Together – the school mentioned earlier that was completed the night before its first group of students came through its doors – also finds itself in a precarious position.

To set up the new school, the old St Patrick’s College Catholic boys’ school was given over by the church to the new Educate Together patron.

“This was only divested to us temporarily,” says Principal Bourke.

“Only part of the building has been done up for us. The Department’s plan is that when the rest of the building is done up, another Catholic school will move in and we’ll move into their building.

My concern with the divestment process would be that the Church, when they tend to divest property (I’d be familiar with the situation in Castlebar as well), they’re not looking to divest prime property.

The case she is referring to in Castlebar was one that hit national headlines last year after property offered up was described as “abandoned, remote and neglected with inadequate sanitary arrangements, heating and space”.

castlebar The school in Castlebar that was thought not to be fit for purpose

In Tuam, the problem looks set to get progressively worse with each new year’s intake (for September Bourke says there has already been “huge demand”).

“The amount of children we have starting this year… We have that number for the next three years already,” she says.

We haven’t put that much effort into promoting the school or advertising it or anything like that.

Another school uncertain of its long-term future is New Ross Educate Together.

On the school’s opening, principal Elaine French tells TheJournal.ie that it was a “really positive experience”.

“For the size we are, it’s got offices and rooms that are big enough for classrooms and we have one room that is quite big that we use as a hall. We have a kitchen that we use for art, cookery and that kind of thing,” she says.

new ross educate together New Ross Educate Together's home page Source: New Ross Educate Together

However, as advantageous a situation as this might be for the moment – like the others – the school is only guaranteed its building until the end of the next academic year.

“We were here this year, we’ll be here next year,” French says. “At the moment we haven’t entered into any talks with the department about a permanent building, so we don’t really know at the minute when that will happen. We are kind of waiting to see.

We know that the building will become an issue for us in the future but at the moment I suppose we’re not really thinking that far ahead.

‘Accommodation for one full stream’ 

In some ways, the ad-hoc approach to creating schools is understandable as many start out with a single year of junior infants and then progressively expand.

Still, it’s not how it was imagined.

When Ruairí Quinn wrote to bishops around the country three-and-a-half-years ago, it wasn’t with the aim of securing temporary accommodation for a single year of students; rather the then-minister confidently requested buildings that would offer:

Sufficient school accommodation to cater for at least one full-stream (junior infants to 6th class inclusive).

The Department of Education has struggled to accommodate schools with the dearth of property being made immediately available by the Catholic Church.

“The main Catholic patrons were requested to identify areas where school premises may become available to accommodate patronage diversity,” a spokesperson explained in a statement to TheJournal.ie. 
These included schools due to close as part of amalgamation arrangements or older, vacated school premises.

Rather than wait for the perfect property to become available for a school, the department has offered “temporary start-up accommodation” where there is a “reasonable certainty” that a suitable long-term home would be identified.

“The department continues to work closely with the stakeholders to progress the opening of new schools under the patronage divesting process.”

The process has been slow, but things are changing all the time.

From September the amount of property the church has put into the process will rise.

Riverview Educate Together National School has been established in the former St Peter’s National School in south Dublin (the building became available after a merger) and Castlebar Educate Together in Mayo is also set to open its doors.

New Ross Educate Together, Trim Educate Together and Gaelscoil na Laochra are also all due to move into permanent accommodation given over by the Catholic Church.

A spokesperson for Educate Together – the patron for seven of the eight divested schools – described the process of sourcing buildings as “challenging”, noting that the process was most effective when the department consulted with itself and the local community. 

‘The school would have closed’

There is only one clear example of a school remaining in the same building and transferring patronage.

Newtownwhite Educate Together in Ballina, Co Mayo took over from a former Church of Ireland school back in 2014, giving new patronage to an institution that had been in place for more than 100 years.

“I was in the school, my dad was in the school and my grandad was a teacher in the school. It is kind of a tradition for our family to go to that school,” explains Louise Fraser, a key member of the startup group that pushed for the transfer of patronage.

newtownwhite Enda Kenny pictured at the opening of Newtownwhite Educate Together Source: Michael Mc Laughlin

While the new school opens up options in the area (it’s Mayo’s first Educate Together school), its creation was the product of pragmatism.

The main reason we went looking for other options was that, like all village and country schools, it was going to close as it was going to go down to one teacher. A one-teacher school just isn’t feasible really. It’s too much work on one person.

When it came to handing over the school building, Fraser’s group found an amenable ear with the current Church of Ireland patron, saying the switch “wasn’t a huge process”.

We went to our bishop and wrote him a letter on behalf of the board of management and he agreed to hand over the school.

Patricia Quinn, a teacher at the school, noted that the fact it had previously been under the patronage of the Church of Ireland – where religious education is not solely the remit and responsibility of the school - might have made it easier for the children to move across.

The trickiest thing, she said, was getting some of the children to call the teachers by their first names.

We actually had someone in from the local radio station in here last week and he asked one of the junior infants what difference would it make, and he said ‘because we’re all equal’, and he’s only four and I thought it was such a nice thing.

What next for divestment? 

Riverview Educate Together will take in its first set of junior infants in Dublin this September. The drive to open the school was headed up by parent Nicola Murphy.

In 2015, a sense of hopelessness began to set in after her unbaptised child Ruben was rejected by nine schools.

“We were very upset, it wasn’t a very nice time for our family. We were very stressed, we were very worried. So we decided to put our energy into making a new school happen,” she says.

riverview ed together

Now, one year later, her son will take up his place in junior infants.

Murphy’s experience characterises a situation that many Irish parents have to go through when it comes time to enroll their child in primary school – and its one the Department of Education knows it has to deal with.

One way it proposes to do this is through the Community National School model – one that Minister Bruton has expressed favour for – which has been developed with the input of the Catholic Church, and involves the separation of children by faith.

Freedom of Information documents released to RTÉ last year showed the Church of Ireland’s Canon John McCullough saying that the schools’ religious model “runs counter to the concept of a school providing inclusive education”.

It’s a view shared by Tuam Educate Together’s Nuala Bourke.

“Some teacher in the school is going to have to take the Muslim group and teach about Islamic faith formation,” she says.

“I would say there are very few teachers in the country who are Muslim at this time, yet you have to teach Islamic faith formation, another teacher has to teach Hindu faith formation or Buddhist faith formation and teach it as fact.

The church like it from that point of view and they seem happier to divest property because they’re still involved and faith formation is being covered during the school day.

Regardless of what types of school are opened to create more options for parents, the government has a tough road ahead of it.

The programme for government aims at creating 400 non-denominational and multi-denominational schools by 2030, as of last year, there were 136 multi- or inter-denominational national schools in Ireland; to hit 400 by 2030, schools will have to be opened at a rate of 18 a year over the next 15 years, including this year – a big ask by anyone’s reckoning.

Pasted image at 2016_07_28 01_11 PM

Read: Religious education in schools: Two sets of rights in conflict

Also: Here is how Ireland’s bishops responded to being asked to hand over their schools

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