Call to speed up divestment of schools

Two multi-denominational schools will open this week in temporary accommodation because no existing property has yet been provided for them as part of the Government-led patronage divestment process.

Kaylah Greensmyth and Amelia Janota on their first day in school in Loughrea, Co Galway. Picture: Hany Marzouk

They are among six new multi-denominational Educate Together primary schools, where children learn about all religions together and faith-specific teaching happens outside school hours.

Of four in areas where wider choice for parents was recommended following local surveys for the Department of Education, one near Ballina, Co Mayo, has opened in a former Church of Ireland school property. Another in Malahide is in temporary accommodation, but will eventually get a new building because local population growth now means an additional school is needed instead of taking over an existing one.

However, in Tramore, Co Waterford, and Trim, Co Meath, where one of the existing schools was to be made available, the new schools have to operate for now from temporary facilities. The multi-denominational patron says longer term accommodation options are being advanced by the department.

Educate Together was chosen as the preferred operator of schools in more than 20 towns early last year, on the understanding that local consultations would lead to an existing property being made available through the amalgamation or closure of existing schools.

However, legal issues around title on properties which are often held in historic trusts, are linked to some delays in the wider divestment process.

Educate Together has called on the Department of Education to allocate €5m to the patronage divestment programme over the next three years, saying its costs for setting up each new primary schools average €95,000.

In July, outgoing education minister Ruairi Quinn — who initiated the forum on primary patronage and pluralism that prompted the exercise — said the progress to date has been slower than anticipated. He spoke in 2011 at the start of the process about the possibility of half of all 3,300 primary schools — nearly 90% of them under Catholic bishops’ patronage — being divested.

However, the department said it continues to work with local communities and Catholic dioceses, and reports positive engagement by patrons.

The other aspect of the forum’s work was to recommend changes in how schools that remain in control of a particular denomination can be more inclusive of children from other faiths, or none.

The department is asking schools to follow good practice in many areas on policies such as the timing of religion classes and activities during the school day, the right of families to have their children opt out of religion classes, the display of religious artefacts and celebration of religious festivals. A new curriculum on education about religion, beliefs and ethics is being designed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to ensure all schools have a programme that teaches about these issues.

Despite the opening of six Educate Together schools this week, it says more multi-denominational schools are urgently needed. It has 74 schools, and two new community national schools opened by education and training boards in Co Cork and Dublin, bringing their number to nine.

“At present, there are large areas of the country where parents have no alternative but to send their children to denominational schools against their conscience and lawful preference,” said Educate Together chief executive Paul Rowe.

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