Change in patronage moves at glacial pace in Ireland

The cherry blossoms are in bloom and Communion season is in full swing, with the girls akin to miniature brides and the boys kitted out like Conor McGregor, writes Elaine Loughlin.

But many of these children may never again set foot in a Church, apart from the odd Christmas Day or a sibling’s Confirmation.

File image of priest during communion.

Ireland is changing.

Just 51% of marriages include religious ceremonies. Half of all couples do not walk up the church aisle to get married and this is an indication that they won’t want their children brought up in a faith-based school.

But still, 96% of our primary schools are under religious patronage.

Successive education ministers, from Ruairí Quinn, to Jan O’Sullivan and now Richard Bruton, have tried to claw some of the 2,800 Catholic primary schools out of the grip of the Church and have failed.

Indeed, a spokesperson for Mr Bruton said: “There have been previous efforts at transferring patronage, but we have to be honest and admit that they haven’t worked.”

His predecessor, Ms O’Sullivan, told this paper in 2015 that she was disappointed at the rate of progress in divestment and said it was her intention to engage with stakeholders.

Speaking recently, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said he has “constantly” argued that there is a need to reduce the number of Catholic schools up and down the county.

“I’ve met resistance, not among the bishops, but among some of the bureaucracies involved in school policy."

“Until that happens, there’s going to be no real choice,” he said.

And yet, almost a generation of primary school-aged children have progressed through school and onto

secondary education, since divestment was first highlighted as a government priority.

Back in 2011, the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector was established to recommend steps to ensure that a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools would be provided to cater for children of all religions and none.

The forum held public sessions and consulted widely on the issues, before a report was published in 2012.

The forum identified 43 towns and areas across the country where parents did not have a choice in the type of education they could give their children.

Surveys were carried out in all 43 areas, and in 28 areas there was clear demand for alternative forms of education, mostly for Educate Together, but also for Gaelscoil and Education and Training Board (ETB) options.

However, six years later and 16 of these 28 areas are still awaiting their divested schools.

With only a handful of schools divested from the Church, the Department of Education has now, again, gone back to the drawing board and is to begin another round of surveys.

Mr Bruton announced this new process in January of last year, but ETBs, who have been tasked with identifying areas, have yet to survey parents.

There are big ambitions and the Programme for Government has committed to reaching 400 multi-denominational and non-denominational schools by 2030.

The Government will be given a get-out-of-jail-free card, when it comes to some of these schools, which will be newly built to cater for an increasing population, meaning they won’t actually have to take existing schools away from the Church to make up the full 400.

But change comes dripping slowly.

While both the Department of Education and the Catholic Church seem to think divestment is a good idea, little progress has been made.

In the meantime, class after class of girls in white dresses and boys in suits are educated by the Catholic Church, whether their parents like it or not.


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