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Concerns raised that parents of pre-schoolers had no say in Catholic school divestment scheme

A new state strategy aimed at securing scores more school ethos changes will be announced soon.

MULTI-DENOMINATIONAL ORGANISATIONS raised concerns with the Minister for Education last year about whether parents’ voices would be heard under a pilot scheme that was supposed to kickstart divestment of Catholic primary schools.

Documents released to The Journal under Freedom of Information show concerns were raised by two multi-denominational school organisations – An Foras Patrúnachta and Educate Together – just days after Minister for Education Norma Foley announced the pilot for eight areas with no multi-denominational national school in March 2022.

The Schools Reconfiguration for Diversity pilot covered eight suburbs and towns across the country but has resulted in only two schools transferring to the patronage of their local Education and Training Boards.

One of the concerns raised in the patron bodies’ letter was that the pilot did not have a “clear mechanism” for parents of pre-school children to be consulted on their preferences.

Aodhán Ó Riordán, a Labour Party TD and former national school principal, believes the design of the pilot, which included some schools in his Dublin Bay North constituency, was inherently biased in favour of the status quo

“Without an advocate for change, and with those parents in sixth class having more of a say than parents of those aged 2 or 3, you are obviously going to have a situation where the status quo remains,” he said.

Eighty-eight percent of primary schools in the state are currently under Catholic patronage, with only about 5% of all schools multi-denominational. 

The Department of Education is now planning a fresh push to change more Catholic primary schools to multi-denominational ones following the lacklustre success of the pilot.

However, it did not confirm whether parents of pre-school children will be consulted this time.

It said this weekend it is “currently exploring the scope and arrangements for a potential survey of primary schools in relation to reconfiguration and details will be announced in due course”.

The Department said it would announce details by the end of the year on how it will fulfil the government’s pledge to achieve a target for at least 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030, more than double the number today.

The forthcoming divestment strategy comes after Census 2022 results published this week revealed a 10 percentage point drop in the number of people who identify as Catholic to 69% of the population. Fourteen per cent of the population have no religion.

In their letter to the minister in March 2022, the multi-denominational patron bodies said: “From the ‘Schools Reconfiguration for Diversity’ documents that have been made available, we are concerned that there does not seem to be a clear mechanism for parents and families to have their voices heard on the type of school that will result from any transfers.”

“It is our view that the Department’s pilot programme should meaningfully engage with local parents, and that all members of the school community, as well as parents of pre-school children, should be offered the opportunity to have their voices heard on any transfer of school patronage,” the patron bodies said.

David Graham of campaign group Education Equality, which wants an end to religious education in state-funded schools, said families who had sent their children outside their local area to access a multi-denominational school had also been excluded by a process that surveyed existing Catholic school communities.

Aodhán Ó Riordán said undue influence was given under the pilot scheme to school staff and parents whose children were already in school, with no-one charged with advocating in favour of divestment.

“No-one is showing the vision of what change could be, allaying fears, telling people their greatest fear is not something they should be concerned about,” Ó Riordán said.

Ó Riordán said the pilot had had an “unreasonably truncated timeline”, with decisions expected to be made by December 2022 to allow transfers of patronage for the current school year, while the schemes goals and decision-making processes were “ill-defined”.

The Department said of its forthcoming strategy: “The goal remains to establish a strong process, that has the support of patrons and local communities, and which will enable us to continue to increase the number of multi-denominational primary schools across the country.”

Parents of pre-school children in 16 areas were surveyed under an earlier pilot scheme in 2018.

However the findings of these surveys have never been released. The Journal sought these surveys in recent weeks under Freedom of Information from the Education and Training Boards that conducted them but the requests have been declined, on the basis that school reconfiguration is ongoing and release of the information could affect decision-making processes.

Educate Together said parents of primary and pre-school children and others in the school community should have a role in deciding the type of schools in their area. It also wants annual ring-fenced funding put in place to support school reconfiguration. 

“The state has a target of 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030, but to date there has been no clear strategy, targets or plan to achieve this, and no designated funding,” it said.

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