Call for change to process behind patronage for multi-denominational schools

Delays in deciding who will open four new primary schools have been linked to prospective patrons poorly representing valid interest levels among parents.

The experts who assess applications have called on Education Minister Richard Bruton to change the process because of the problems.

He announced yesterday the patrons selected for the multi-denominational schools in Dublin and Cork. Three of them now have just five months to open but his department said they will all be able to do so.

One will be a second gaelscoil in Ballincollig, Co Cork, under the patronage of An Foras Pátrúnachta. The other three schools will be in Dublin, two to be opened by Educate Together — in Dún Laoghaire this autumn, and in the south city centre in 2018 — and the third by first-time primary patron Scoil Sinéad in Pelletstown.

Families in these areas were canvassed for support by prospective patrons from November up to an early January application deadline. The Department of Education was due to announce the successful patrons by late February, but a report to Mr Bruton about the process points to difficulties that led to the delays.

His department must assess expressions of interest among local parents from each patron before submitting a report to the independent New Schools Establishment Group (NSEG) for its recommendations. But the department’s assessments were not finalised until 11 days ago, and reasons for the delay are spelt out by the NSEG in a letter to the minister.

The main factor is the “considerable number” of invalid parental preferences indicated by applicant patrons, which then have to be singled out and discounted by the department. Across the four areas being assessed, more than 430 children listed by patrons had to be discounted from almost 3,000 names submitted.

The main reason why some children were removed from a patrons’ count of parental preferences was that the family lives outside the catchment area for the proposed new school. But in many cases, patrons had not stated what year the child would begin, or listed a year outside the permitted five-year enrollment limit.

Nearly 100 of the children listed by the three applicants to be a patron in Ballincollig could not be counted, including 54 of the 277 names provided by Educate Together. In Pelletstown in Dublin, 46 of the 65 children listed by City of Dublin ETB were considered invalid, including 28 who live outside the area.

In a letter to Mr Bruton accompanying its recommendations, NESG chairman Seamus McGuinness said this has been a problem in successive patronage processes, despite clear guidance from the department. He wrote that the work of individually identifying and removing those children from the valid preferences, “has a knock-on effect on the duration of the assessment process, adding unnecessarily” to the assessment work and creating no benefit for any patron.

“The group reiterates its previous recommendation that consideration be given to an examination of other options for a more effective and efficient means of disseminating information to parents and of collecting parental preferences,” he wrote.

A department spokesperson said it is considering options to improve the process.

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