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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C

State on a go-slow in moving primary education from majority Catholic grip

Noteworthy spotlights a lack of coherence, communication and progress in the State promise to provide 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030.

THE GOVERNMENT’S PLAN to provide 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 has no roadmap or interim targets, while representatives and parents from both Catholic and secular groups believe change in the sector is not happening quickly enough.

Despite over a decade of commitments from successive Governments to diversify the choice of primary school patronage, the percentage of Catholic schools has fallen by just 2% in eight years.

In 2012, when the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector reported, 90.6% of schools had a Catholic ethos; in September 2020, with 45 schools having closed (just over 1%), that figure had dropped only marginally to 88.7%.

  • In part two of this investigation, we speak to parents and teachers impacted by the lack of diversity at primary school level. Read it here.

In July 2020, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) told the UN Expert Committee on the Rights of the Child that “while the Commission has welcomed commitments by the State to establish more multi-denominational schools, it shares the [UN] Committee’s concerns about the slow progress to date”.

The IHREC recommended “that the Committee asks the State why it has not met its targets on the divestment of patronage from Catholic schools”.

Noteworthy / Flourish

For an interactive table of all primary schools and their patrons, click here.

The issue has risen back into public consciousness in recent months, following public and political controversy over Flourish, a new programme for relationships and sexuality education in primary schools, developed by the Irish Bishops Conference.

Just this weekend, a Catholic primary school in Lacken, Co Wicklow, said it would not be using the Flourish programme, following protests by some parents at the school over its content.

Today, Noteworthy can report that:

  • Surveys undertaken in 2012 and 2013 by the Department of Education and Skills (DES) identified that there was sufficient parental demand for changes in school patronage in 28 areas; to date, just 13 multi-denominational schools have been established under this process.
  • Key stakeholders, including some Catholic patrons and campaigners for a more secular system, believe the process initiated by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism has, at best, ground to a halt.
  • On the day before they were due to be published, the Department of Education instructed education and training boards not to release reports and surveys on school patronage.
  • Two years later, the DES is blocking their release as it continues to meet with the Irish Episcopal Conference on a monthly basis and says the process is ongoing.
  • Campaigners for change say that a  ‘cost-neutral’ approach from the DES towards divesting schools from the Catholic faith provides insufficient financial resources to make the process happen as proposed.

“I had no choice in the matter”

As well as extensive Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the DES, we received feedback from just over 1,000 parents, teachers and stakeholders including Catholic representatives, campaigners, academics and multidenomintional patrons for this series, using a combination of survey tools and on- and off-the-record interviews.

As part of our outreach to parents impacted by the current make-up of the Irish primary school landscape, we gathered experiences via a survey form over a number of weeks.

In the 2016 census, 78% of the Irish population identified themselves and/or their children as Catholic, a fall from 84% in 2011. Before Covid-19 closed churches, a survey by Amárach Research showed that Mass attendance was down as low as 27% among Catholics, down from nearly 90% in 1979. And, in 2020, more people chose civil ceremonies over Catholic ceremonies for the first time, according to the CSO.

Sineád Gibney, chief commissioner of the IHREC - woman with dark hair wearing a blue jumper - with quote - While progress has been made, much of what was set out has not yet been fully implemented.

One parent in Munster, writing to Noteworthy, explained that educational choice is not reflective of the changing faith landscape:

“There is no Educate Together or non-denominational school in our town. The nearest ET school is oversubscribed and although we applied and were willing to commit to the drive, it was filled locally.”

Another parent, also based in Munster, said that she had been unable to secure a place for her child in a non-Catholic school.

“I had no choice in the matter. My child was on the waiting list for Educate Together from the age of one, but did not get a place. We live in a city where we have over 10 Catholic schools and a Protestant school nearby, but there was no option of a non-religious education for my child.”

Children are constitutionally entitled to opt out of religious instruction, and schools are required under the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 to facilitate this. Some parents say that they have been either unable to opt their child out of religious instruction and education or felt pressure to let them participate.

Sinéad Gibney, Chief Commissioner of the IHREC says that “while progress has been made, much of what was set out has not yet been fully implemented”.

In 2020, a survey of 40 Catholic schools, carried out by the campaign group Atheist Ireland, found that 30 of these schools required parents to seek a meeting with the school principal if they wished to opt their child out of religious instruction.

A respondent to our callout for parental experiences in this area said:

“I discovered my second child had been made to do RE for his entire senior infant year even though we had opted out. I had a meeting with the principal who laughed it off as a mistake and didn’t see it as a problem. Another meeting was had when my daughter came home with the ashes after having been opted out for three years. I was told, ‘She got in line with the rest of the class and we didn’t want to tell her no.’ She was only seven at the time.”

In part two of this investigation – which will be published on The Journal and Noteworthy this evening - we look more extensively at the experiences and problems of parents and teachers on the ground, and ask experts for their solutions to these key challenges.

Not there yet – but are we getting there?

On 10 April 2012, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary, chaired by the late Professor John Coolahan, published its report. It called for sweeping changes in the patronage of schools. Successive governments promised action.

While the Department of Education and Skills (DES) has set a target of 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030, this is not underpinned by any law and the DES has not set any annual targets.

In their recent statement of strategy, the DES set the goal of ensuring “equity of opportunity in education and that all students are supported to fulfil their potential”. This, they said, was to include the strategic action of increasing “the diversity of school type in order to offer parents and students more choice through the process to reconfigure schools to increase diversity and strengthen the relationship between schools and their local communities”. It did not, however, outline how this could be done.

“The focus of the department is on the overall target of having 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 rather than having separate annual targets,” the DES said in response to queries from Noteworthy.

The DES said the target of 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 would be achieved in two ways. Firstly, transferring patronage from existing Catholic schools, “including ‘early movers’, new schools in the remaining patronage divesting areas where a school has yet to be established”. And, secondly, building new schools in “areas of demographic growth” with patronage decided by parental preference and existing provision in the area. These, it is believed, are likely “to have a multi-denominational ethos”.

All completely new primary schools that have opened since 2011 – bar one, which is inter-denominational – have multi-denominational patrons, which mean that children of different faiths and none are educated together with a broad ethical framework that respects all beliefs. All but two of these patrons were chosen after surveys of local parents.

Noteworthy / Flourish

For an interactive table of the patronage of all new schools, click here.

While the DES says that the primary “patronage process is open to all patrons/prospective patrons bodies, including those offering denominational/religious options”, no Catholic patron has asked to be the patron of a new school since 2015, when the Bishop of Cloyne’s application was rejected by the DES.

The DES says that changing patrons, which it refers to as the “reconfiguration” process, “involves the transfer of existing live schools as opposed to the amalgamation and/or closure model of the patronage divesting process”.

Since 2011, however, just 13 schools have transferred from a Christian to a multi-denominational patron including one in 2013, four in 2014, two in 2015, two in 2016, and one in each of 2018 and 2019 while, more recently, a gaelscoil transferred from the Catholic archbishop of Dublin to An Foras Pátrúnachta.

In addition, in 2015, one school in Galway changed from a Steiner school under the patronage of Lifeways Ireland to a community national school under the patronage of Galway Education and Training Board.

These schools represent just 2.5% of Ireland’s 3,106 primary schools. Almost 90% of primary schools remain under Catholic patronage. Surveys on parental preference, carried out on foot of the Forum report, have not always led to change, with 12 of the 50 areas where parents wanted change still without choice.

Three years after surveys of parents in selected areas were due to be completed, and almost two years after they were due to be released by the country’s 16 education and training boards, the DES is still blocking their publication because, it says, it is engaged in a “deliberative process” with the Irish Episcopal Conference, which represents the Catholic bishops that act as patrons of the majority of primary schools.

These meetings, which the DES says have happened every month in 2021, take place behind closed doors and the DES has refused Freedom of Information requests from Noteworthy to disclose what was discussed, or to provide any timeline as to when these negotiations might conclude.

The IHREC made recommendations on divestment to the Oireachtas in 2015 and 2016, and has also made a number of written submissions and recommendations to the United Nations and the Council of Europe on issues of education and religion.

In July of last year, the Commission made a submission to the UN Expert Committee focused on children’s rights. “We set out that while we welcome the commitments by the State to establish more multi-denominational schools, the Commission does hold concerns about the slow progress to date,” said the IHREC’s Sineád Gibney.

“[We] acknowledge that this is a complex process with multiple stakeholders, [but] the Programme for Government commits to achieving a target of at least 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 to improve parental choice.

Gibney said their recommendation to the UN ahead of its review of Ireland’s obligations on Children’s Rights is that it “directly ask the State to account for slow progress on the divestment of patronage from Catholic schools”.

The IHREC says it’s now awaiting the State’s report to the UN’s Children’s Rights Committee.

Emer Nowlan, CEO, Educate Together - woman with brown hair wearing blue blouse standing at bookcase - with quote - There's a lack of political will... Ministers land in the DES and it takes them the first year and a half to see why divestment doesn't happen.

Today, there is a perception that the process is not working, says Emer Nowlan, CEO of Educate Together which, in the late 1970s, became the first multi-denominational patron in the State to offer a non-Catholic or non-Protestant alternative.

“There has never been a strategy or funding, and it’s supposed to be cost-neutral, but you can’t achieve this type of change without money,” she told Noteworthy.

“In Northern Ireland, Ulster University’s Community Conversations programme is a model for engaging communities around educational change – and ensuring that the quieter voices are heard – but we have nothing similar here. While the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism made recommendations, there’s never been a process. Even bishops find it difficult to divest.”

Jane Donnelly, education officer with Atheist Ireland, is a long-time campaigner on this issue. “The State is constitutionally responsible for the right of children not to attend religious instruction and to respect the rights of non-religious parents in Catholic schools,” she says. “That has broken down.”

The real cost of a ‘cost-neutral’ approach

In 2021, whether multi-denominational or religious, patrons and principals say that there is scant practical or financial support from the DES for schools who decide to change patronage.

In 2012, the country was in the grip of austerity and Ruairi Quinn, the Minister for Education who initiated the changes, said that the changeover, wherever possible, should be cost-neutral.

This, said Paul Rowe, former CEO of Educate Together, ultimately doomed the process to failure.

“How can you transfer 10% of the primary school system without investing in it? They never provided resources, development offices or financial support for the change process,” he says.

“Critically, they refused to allow a school to open in temporary accommodation in an area that had indicated change, whereas our argument was that the best way to induce change was to allow temporary accommodation – and then, the opening and growth of the Educate Together would induce changes in enrolment in other schools, bring about rationalisation and release buildings.”

Paul Rowe, former CEO, Education Together - man with grey hair and glasses wearing a suit and tie - with quote - How can you transfer 10% of the primary school system without investing in it? The State never provided proper resources or support for it.

On November 26, 2020, Educate Together officials Emer Nowlan (CEO) and Sandra Irwin-Gowran (head of education and development) met with Minister for Education Norma Foley and three department officials.

In advance, Educate Together submitted a substantial briefing document. According to DES’s own notes, Educate Together told DES officials that:

  • There is always pressure for places in Educate Together schools
  • There are six counties in the Republic without an Educate Together school
  • Progress on having 400 multi-denominational schools was “slow”
  • Alternatives are needed, especially for children of different minorities. 
  • The ETB surveys had not been published.
  • Problems in sourcing buildings are slowing the diversification process.

 In their briefing document, Educate Together wrote that “a lack of resources for change is a key reason for lack of progress. It is clear now that reforms will not happen without strategic investment to incentivise change. In addition, greater openness and transparency are required if progress is to be achieved.”

Setting up new schools as ‘short-term solution’

Aodhán Ó Riordáin TD, Labour spokesperson on education, is a former Minister of State for equality and a former principal in a Catholic primary school.

“This is a volunteer model, so why would the church want to give up their control of schools and the land? As a short-term solution, the DES – rather than go through a long protracted discussion – are setting up more schools.”

Ó Riordáin is one of many voices in education who say it is a major hassle for principals to start a divestment process.

“When you’re a principal, you have so much on your plate: you are constantly trying to serve the needs of the children, and the challenges constantly change. You don’t have the time, space or inclination to think of 5, 10, 15 years’ time, and the long process of changing ethos or patronage. There is no administrative support [for this process].”

Kevin Doran, bishop of Elphin, agrees that there is a lack of clear guidance for a school that would like to transfer out of Catholic patronage.

He told Noteworthy: “What is required for any coherent progress to be made is a template, agreed between Government and the patrons – not just Catholic bishops – on the basis of which consultations with parents can be carried out, and provision can be made for the actual needs of diverse groups, including parents who want a Catholic education for their children.”

Nowlan said that there is political stasis on this. “There’s a lack of political will,” said the Educate Together CEO. “It’s remarkable that Quinn got as far as he did but it helped that he was education spokesperson before becoming minister. Bruton considered himself as a reformist but ministers land in the DES and it takes them the first year and a half to see why [divestment] doesn’t happen.”

Bishop Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin - man with grey hair and glasses wearing black and clerical collar - with quote - What is required for any coherent progress to be made is a template agreed between Government and the patrons - not just Catholic bishops.

Noteworthy requested an interview with the Minister for Education Norma Foley to discuss the reconfiguration process, but were told she was unavailable. However, she did reply to two questions sent by email.

We asked her if she was “personally satisfied with the progress made” and if she could “provide parents with any sort of timeline as to when she expects conversations with the Irish Episcopal Conference would lead to an outcome that increases choice for parents”.

The Minister replied: “The Department and I are fully committed to achieving the targets set out in the Programme for Government. In the past year, the challenges presented by Covid-19 to schools, patron bodies, and the Department have impacted on the pace of reconfiguration, but engagement has remained ongoing at all times.

“As Minister I will meet with patron bodies shortly to discuss reconfiguration, and I look forward to working together to further this in the months ahead.

“It is important to note that notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic, progress has been made in reconfiguration. For example, a new model for reconfiguration has been used in Scoil Caitlin Maude in Tallaght, an Irish-medium school which has transitioned from the patronage of the Archdiocese of Dublin to that of An Foras Pátrúnachta. Future students will be offered the choice between an Ethics and Morality programme and Catholic instruction.”

When school doesn’t come with a schoolhouse

One of several areas where parental surveys showed a strong demand for an alternative to a Catholic school, but where parents remain with no choice, is Arklow, Co Wicklow, close to the border with Co Wexford. Gorey, a 15-minute drive away in north Wexford, has one of the most oversubscribed Educate Together schools in the country.

Early on in Ruairi Quinn’s tenure, his advisor contacted Educate Together and asked them to submit a list of areas where they believed a survey would show significant numbers of families seeking a non-Catholic alternative.

“Arklow was top of the list, and the first area to be surveyed,” said Paul Rowe, former Educate Together CEO. “Educate Together had very successful schools down the east coast, from Glenageary – which was our founding school, the Dalkey School Project – to Bray, Wicklow and Gorey.

“Over the years, Educate Together had significant interest from families in Arklow. It seemed inevitable that there would be a successful Educate Together school in Arklow.”

A total of 28 areas were surveyed, with one vote in Birr, Co Offaly leading to the establishment of a Gaelscoil, and 25 out of the other 27 resulting in a vote for an Educate Together school. Where Educate Together seeks patronage, it wins almost every time.

Noteworthy / Flourish

For an interactive version of this map, click here.

An analysis by the DES of five surveys said that Educate Together “is the multi-denominational patron that achieved both the greatest level of 1st preferences and also the highest level of combined parental preferences overall among parents who expressed a preference for change in patronage in each of the five areas surveyed.”

“Ultimately it hasn’t happened in Arklow, despite the clear demand, because of property issues,” said Rowe. 

In Arklow, as in many areas where the reconfiguration process has hit a wall, the opposition wasn’t necessarily from senior clerics but instead from within the local parish.

There was local opposition to amalgamating a local boys school with a local girls school – which would have freed up a building – despite an effort by the archdiocese to engage with the local community in order to provide parents with a choice.

“Educate Together’s intent was always to establish schools to provide choice, so that Catholic families who want a specific Catholic education could have it, and those who didn’t would have a freely available option rather than be forced to reluctantly send their children to a Catholic school,” said Rowe.

“It is the responsibility of the State and the DES, not the Catholic church, to provide buildings. The DES could have allowed Educate Together to open in temporary accommodation in Arklow, which would have grown and proven its viability. We could have found temporary accommodation, perhaps from a local scout or GAA club who could have used the rent to upgrade their facilities.”

The other option – a new schools process – did not happen, because the DES’s demographic projections didn’t indicate sufficient numbers for an additional school in the Arklow area.

Gerry McKevitt, Educate Together’s new schools officer, explains some of the issues: “If a school amalgamates, the DES does not own the vacant building, although they often have a lean on a building if they have invested in it. It can be difficult for the church to sell an old school building – but they might be able to find another use for it.”

Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education, UCC - woman with blonde/grey hair wearing white shirt and blue cardigan - with quote - The State has learned from its mistake. Irrespective of who the new patron is, it puts the capital outlay for all new school buildings, and it owns them.

The DES began to build their own schools around 2004 or 2005, but the church and religious orders have significant – and potentially financially lucrative – buildings and lands. In 2018, for instance, the Christian Brothers, who own Clonkeen College in south county Dublin, were sued by the board of management after attempting to sell the school’s playing pitches.

“The State has learned from its mistake,” said Áine Hyland, one of the founders of the first multi-denominational schools in the State. “Irrespective of who the patron is, it puts up the capital outlay for all new school buildings, and it owns them.”

McKevitt said that this ownership will allow the DES to change the patron in those schools. “In fairness to the DES, I think that if they’d had a building, we would have been given it. But to replace 3,500 primary school buildings will take time and money, so it may not be possible in our lifetime.”

The Flourish row and the ‘integrated’ curriculum

The Arklow example is perhaps a key indication of why the modest target of 400 multi-denominational schools by 2030 appears to be the only one to which the DES aspires and why even those long advocating for change feel it will be a long time coming.

Áine Hyland, professor emeritus of education at University College Cork, is – as mentioned – a pioneering figure in Irish education. In the face of significant Catholic and State opposition, she was one of a group of parents who founded the Dalkey School Project, which was the founding Educate Together school and the first multi-denominational school in the State.

In her recent book, A Brave New Vision for Education in Ireland: The Dalkey School Project 1974-84, Hyland builds the case that Irish education became more – not less – conservative from the 1960s. This suggests that the current status of religion in primary schools is not some dilemma the State stumbled into; it is a choice formed by several generations of civil servants and ministers in the department of education.

“Surprisingly, in 1965, at a time when Irish society was beginning to become more liberal, the rules of the Department of Education in relation to primary schools were changed,” Hyland told Noteworthy. “New rules published in 1965 gave explicit recognition to the denominational character of primary schools and many of the safeguards relating to children of minority religions or no religion were removed.

“In 1968, the DES created Rule 68. [It stated that] of all parts of the school curriculum, Religious instruction is by far the most important, as its subject matter, God’s honour and service, includes the proper use of all man’s faculties… A religious spirit should vivify the whole work of the school.”

In 2016, Labour Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan abolished Rule 68. In Catholic primary schools, however, an “integrated curriculum” means that aspects of religion still permeate the entire school day.

Integrated curriculums are widely seen as best educational practice. An integrated curriculum, where children are encouraged to see the links between different subjects, might, for instance, see a teacher do a project on the countries of the world with the children which involves the location and landscape of countries, the history of the countries, how many countries are on a continent, drawing the countries and more.

For those who don’t want their children participating in faith formation, however, the inclusion of religion across the curriculum causes tension.

“The ethos will be protected”

Debate this year over Flourish, a new relationships and sexuality education programme in Catholic primary schools, illustrates the point. In 2019, the Department of Education, under then-Minister for Education Joe McHugh, made a decision that may have paved the way for Flourish, which was developed by the Irish Bishops Conference.

While he introduced new guidelines for schools to deal with issues around consent and pornography, McHugh added that his department was “very anxious to ensure that the ethos of the school is central to any curriculum… The ethos will be protected.”

Released in April, Flourish states that love is at the heart of all families but that the church’s view that marriage is between a man and a woman “cannot be omitted”. It also states that “puberty and sex” are a “gift from God” and that “we are perfectly designed by God to procreate with him” and that “sexual love belongs in a committed relationship” with “marriage as a sacrament of commitment.”

One of the sixth-class resources advises: “Babies are precious gifts from God. From the time they are tiny cells in their mother’s womb they need to be minded and they are born completely helpless. They need trusted adults to make sure they grow into strong, healthy children and, eventually, strong adults. We ask God to help us to appreciate how wonderful new life is. Help us to always care for this wonderful gift from the moment that life begins.”

The programme has been criticised in the Dáil, and became a matter of public debate on a number of national radio shows.

The Irish Times reported over the weekend that a Catholic primary school in Lacken, Co Wicklow had written to parents to confirm that the school would not be using the Flourish programme.

Parents in the school had protested about the content of the programme saying they did not believe it “fit for purpose” for the teaching of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) to children and that they believed its content is “discriminatory to LGBTQ+ children and families” and that it “does not correspond with the view of the State”.

The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) is the body that provides advice, training and representation for boards of management. In recent guidance documents issued by Irish bishops – with the support of the CPSMA – Catholic primary schools are encouraged as part of the Flourish programme to integrate religion into all subjects, bar maths.

Noteworthy asked the CPSMA if it would talk to us about the divestment and reconfiguration process and the Flourish programme.

General Secretary Seamus Mulcrony replied: “Flourish is not a programme, it is a set of resources designed to support the teaching of the nationally agreed RSE programme developed by the NCCA [National Council for Curriculum and Assessment] through a Catholic lens. [It] deals with issues such as puberty, the basic facts of life, consent, safety etc in an age appropriate way.”

The CPSMA says that “the resources are not mandatory, and parents are perfectly free to opt out if a school is using the resources”.

Noteworthy contacted all 22 Catholic diocesan offices in the Republic of Ireland about how they had been presented with guidance on using Flourish in the way suggested by CPSMA, especially with the view of parents being able to have their child opt out. We also asked them how the divestment and school reconfiguration process has gone to date.

Five responded, including Kevin Doran, bishop of Elphin, who said that “if this is the view of the CPSMA, it has not been discussed with the diocese of Elphin”.

“Catholic schools are both inclusive and popular with people of minority faiths, not just in Ireland but internationally,” said Mulcrony.

“If memory serves me right there are more Muslim children in Catholic Schools than in the state system in the UK. There are more mentions of the Virgin Mary in the Koran than in the New Testament. At this stage most schools are well experienced at dealing with children of all faiths so we tend not to get many queries on this issue.

“In 2019, we had a total of 9,417 queries of which 18 referenced religion as an issue, in 2020 we handled 12,058 queries of which just 16 referenced religion as an issue.”

Speaking to Sarah McInerney on RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime in May, the Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell said that the church recognises there are complexities within relationships and families and that not all consist of a man married to a woman, that the programme is not mandatory and that parents can opt their children out of the class if they wish.

Máire de Barra, parent-campaigner for educational choice - woman with brown/blonde hair wearing pink jumper carrying young child - with quote - In Flourish, the Catholic bishops have intertwined the teachings of the Catholic church into every aspect of the SPHE/RSE curriculum.

Máire de Barra is one of a group of parents in and around Cork who are campaigning against the introduction of the Flourish curriculum and for non-Catholic choices for their children. She is also a teacher, working in a Catholic secondary school, and studying for DCU’s postgraduate certificate in sexuality education and sexual wellbeing.

“The SPHE/RSE curriculum is about young children exploring their social world and their place in it, this includes their friends, peers, parents, teachers as well as issues that range from friendships, relationships, love, sex, sexuality and their bodies. These topics are encountered in primary schools and developed in all their schooling years, right through to the Leaving Cert.

De Barra says that the current recommendation of the DES that each school should have a consultation process for all stakeholders (parents, teachers, students, management, board) on the approach to these topics is not always observed.

“In the publication of Flourish the Catholic bishops have taken the proposed curriculum set out by the NCCA, and intertwined the teachings of the Catholic Church into every aspect of it,” she told Noteworthy.

“Now parents who are not Catholic and are already withdrawing their children from religion are being forced to decide if their children should be excluded from a vital part of their learning with regards to social, personal and health education as well. This would mean that they would now be left to their own devices for two subjects as well as being separated from their peers as they learn important lessons on life.”

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is currently conducting a review of the primary school RSE programme, engaging with teachers and educators with a range of different views.

Delays and non-disclosure

So where is the Department of Education in the bigger picture of what they call a ‘reconfiguration’ to diversify primary educational ethos?

In 2018, the then-Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, announced that each of the country’s 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs), in an “identification phase”, would survey pre-school parents in a small number of selected pilot areas.

The surveys were to be completed by mid-June 2018, after which the ETBs were charged with analysing them and drawing up a comprehensive report. This, in turn, was to be submitted to the Department of Education and Skills. At the time, the DES said it “will then subsequently publish the results”.

The reconfiguration reports were due to be published by each ETB on their website, in both English and Irish, at the end of June 2019, when Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh was Minister for Education.

At the last minute, however, this was changed.

“Please note that publishing is now being postponed slightly pending some further engagement with church representatives and ETBs should not publish the reports tomorrow,” Eddie Quinn of the DES’s forward planning section wrote to Anne McHugh, chief executive of Donegal ETB on 27 June 2019.

On 1 August 2019, Eddie Quinn advised Donegal ETB that the identification phase reports had been “deferred to allow discussions with the Irish Episcopal Conference [to] evolve towards an agreed approach to the next phase… At this stage, it is envisaged that the identification phase reports will be published in [the last quarter] of 2019.” 

Almost two years after they were due to be released, none of these surveys have been published. Noteworthy submitted Freedom of Information requests to each of the 16 ETBs, who subsequently consulted with the DES about our request.

Following these consultations, the ETBs refused to provide any documentation relating to the identification phase, the school surveys, or any notes and briefings from meetings with the local majority patron which, in over 90% of cases at primary level, is either the local Catholic Church or another Roman Catholic patron.

The ETBs said that the records were part of a “deliberative process” which is yet to conclude and that releasing them would be contrary to the public interest.

The City of Dublin ETB said: “The Department states that the deliberative process does not stop with the identification phase reports… The Department believes that it is essential that the ongoing reconfiguration deliberative process is protected so that the ongoing activity of formulating, considering, weighing up, advising and deciding on issues related to the reconfiguration process is not interfered with.”

Who gets meetings with the DES – and who doesn’t

POPE 958 Sam Boal / Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had a meeting with the Department of Education a month before his retirement early this year but notes of the conversation were heavily redacted. Sam Boal / /

During the pandemic, the issue of ‘reconfiguring’ fell off the radar as the DES grappled with the restrictions placed on education and exams. But the DES has not completely disengaged from the process, saying that it has met representatives from the Irish Episcopal Conference on a monthly basis with a view to developing an agreed approach to the next phase of the process.

The talks between the DES and Irish bishops are taking place behind closed doors. Through a Freedom of Information request, Noteworthy asked the DES to provide correspondence, minutes of meetings, notes and emails between it and multiple Catholic trustees and patron bodies, as well as any finalised or incomplete review process for selecting schools for divestment and reconfiguration, over the past several years.

Most information was redacted, however, with the DES stating that the records were partially blanked out because, the FOI officer said, it “has been engaging with representatives of the Irish Episcopal Conference (Catholic bishops as the majority patron in the 16 areas and of schools nationwide) with a view to developing an agreed approach to the next phase of the process”.

As with the ETB response about the release of its reconfiguration reports in some pilot areas, the “ongoing ongoing deliberative process” was cited for not making records public at this time. 

The DES met with the then-Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin on 9 December 2020 (see FOI – name is incorrectly noted as Diarmuid Ryan), a month before his retirement, but redacted most information on or about that meeting.

It also refused or heavily redacted (see sample FOI return to Noteworthy here) information notes of meetings between the Minister and Catholic bishops, the status of school reconfiguration identification reports, details of the Minister’s brief for a church-state plenary, and briefing notes to and from the Minister about the issue.

Much of the information provided was repeated across several documents, publicly available, or basic information and statistics also provided in press releases.

Waiting to be heard

As the process stands, an “early movers” provision places the onus on individual schools to seek a transfer of patronage, by requesting their existing patron to apply to the Minister for a direct transfer of patronage. Just one such transfer has taken place, in Two-Mile National School outside Killarney, Co Kerry, where the patronage transferred from the Catholic bishop of Kerry to the Education and Training Board.

Education Equality, a voluntary organisation which describes itself as a “campaign for equality in the provision of education for all children regardless of religion”, met with the Minister for Education Richard Bruton on 14 July 2016.

The organisation requested a meeting with Bruton’s successor, Joe McHugh, in October 2018; after an acknowledgment the following month, they heard nothing further. A second request was sent to McHugh – then acting minister for education in advance of Government formation – on 11 March 2021, but Education Equality says that no response was received.

On 10 November 2020, the organisation sought a meeting with Norma Foley “on the issue of religious discrimination in the Irish education system. In particular, we wish to discuss the daily segregation of children within the classroom on the basis of religion and the ‘opt out’ approach to faith formation”.

They contacted the Minister again on 3 February 2021, seeking a meeting but were told a day later (see letter) that Minister Foley’s diary constraints were such that she was not in a position to meet. “However, your correspondence has been sent to Department officials for a response and direct reply.”

At time of publication of this article, Education Equality says that no response has been issued.

“We enjoyed a level and depth of interaction with former Minister Bruton and former Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald (now a Fine Gael MEP) that was far better than we have since,” said David Graham of Education Equality.

The Catholic bishops’ response

A school pupil with hand up in background with quote above from Martin Long, the Catholic Communications Office - From a Catholic ethos perspective, greater choice on the educational landscape is welcomed and encouraged as serving the needs of a more diverse Irish society.

Noteworthy contacted the Catholic Communications Office with a detailed list of questions about the reconfiguration process. In response, Martin Long, spokesperson for the bishops, said that the patronage of primary schools is the “remit of individual patrons”.

“On many occasions bishops have expressed their willingness and commitment to working with the Department of Education in order to bring about a more diverse landscape for patronage. Bishops will continue to work to this end in cooperation with school communities: pupils, parents and staff.”

In principle, the bishops say that they are in favour of change.

“It is important for a pluralist society to offer choice to parents concerning their preferred educational patronage route for their children,” said Long.

“From a Catholic ethos perspective, regardless of which of our patrons/trusts are involved in a school, greater choice on the educational landscape is welcomed and encouraged as serving the needs of a more diverse Irish society and this, in turn, should lead to a more vibrant educational sector.”

A response from the Ferns diocese also indicates that the appetite for divestment is not equal among parents across all parts of the country.

“The diocese did engage with this issue some years back and there was a very small interest in divestment among parents,” said Reverend John Carroll, a spokesperson for the Ferns diocese. “[It was] 2% in some few cases, 8% in one case, less in most others if memory serves me right. The results of this are likely with the Department [of Education]. No query or request for divestment has been received by the diocese.”

Áine Hyland explained that there is often little incentive for parents to begin a divestment process. “Parents and guardians know what they have – a good school with a principal and board that they like. They might only really encounter religion at communion and confirmation. It’s understandable that they’d see Educate Together or some other group and ask: who are these?

“I always said to colleagues: suppose the boot was on the other foot and, 20 years after the Dalkey School Project, the DES said they wanted to divest Educate Together schools to become Catholic. There would be an outcry: this is our school, we set it up and we will fight to prevent others taking it from us.”

Diarmuid Martin was widely seen by all stakeholders as being genuinely committed to change. He was the only bishop to ever visit an Educate Together school, meeting the Catholic Parents Committee at the school. But he was also widely perceived as a relatively lone voice.

“We discussed a wide range of issues and he was very clear that the Irish Catholic hierarchy’s engagement with education in Ireland was out of synch with the international experience of Catholic education,” says Paul Rowe, former CEO of Educate Together.

Student-led secularisation on a secondary horizon

Noticeably absent, perhaps understandably given their age, from any discussion of religion and primary education is the voice of the pupil, save for representations from their parents.

There is, however, a more vocal and growing student clamour around the future of faith and schooling at secondary level.

Jack McGinn, education officer-elect of the Irish Second Level Students’ Union (ISSU), told Noteworthy that his organisation believes that “all educational facilities, including both primary and second-level schools, should be completely secular”.

While there are dedicated Catholic youth organisations with a vibrant young membership, such as Youth2000, the majority of young people in Ireland are not as religious as might be expected from at least eight years of Catholic religious instruction.

“We recognise that some students are religious,” says McGinn. “We firmly believe that all students should be able to practice their religion. We should have equal accommodations for all students of all religions in schools settings when necessary including, for example, accommodations for Muslim students during Ramadan.

“We believe that the change has to start at the primary level. Multi-denominational schools work best for students, in which all students can practice all religions without promoting one single religion [above others].

“Schools are a place to grow and to learn, not a place to have ideologies and religious beliefs taught to students.”


Read part two of this investigation into the impact of the delays around moving Ireland towards greater choice in its primary education system: “We didn’t want to leave – we just wanted them to experience dignity in school.”


This investigation was carried out by Peter McGuire for Noteworthy and edited by Susan Daly. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers. 

Noteworthy is the community-sourced investigative journalism platform from The Journal. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

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