Catholic schools’ extensions at risk

CATHOLIC primary schools could have planned extensions delayed or cancelled if there is demand for other types of schools in an area, under policy recommendations to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.

The proposal is contained in a major report on how to decide the patronage, language of instruction and other factors for new primary schools.

Its publication comes as the question of how Catholic schools in areas of settled population numbers might be transferred to a different patron to cater for parental demand by the recently-established Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.

The Commission on School Accommodation (CSA) was asked in September 2008 by former minister Batt O’Keeffe to review the procedures and criteria for deciding on applications for new schools.

At the time, the focus was on how to cater for rising populations in Dublin and other larger urban areas.

However, the proposals in the 97-page report will now also feed into the considerations of the advisory group appointed by Mr Quinn to oversee the patronage forum.

It is chaired by former education professor at NUI Maynooth John Coolahan and must report to the minister by year’s end after accepting submissions and a series of public hearings with key stakeholders in primary education in June.

The CSA report was compiled by an expert group and cites official projections that could see primary pupil numbers rise by 60,000 to almost 570,000 by 2018, which would require almost 2,300 new classrooms — equivalent to one for every existing primary school. It suggests how to best meet parental demand for alternatives to existing schools in areas where there is not likely to be sufficient numbers of new children in the community to set up a new school.

One recommendation is that the Department of Education should have procedures to consider applications from prospective parents of new schools in such areas.

“The group also considers that, in concluding as to whether a demographic need might be met through extension projects in local schools, the department should not seek to extend accommodation in existing schools of a certain patronage, where there is a certain level of demand for patronage of a different type in that area,” the report states.

All major school building applications, either for start-up schools or extensions to those already operating, need evidence of sufficient future enrolments.

But the policy recommended by the CSA report could mean the patrons of schools seeking extensions would have to demonstrate sufficient demand for their model or denomination of school. Alternatively, the department might have to investigate if parents in the area would prefer an alternative school type.

Almost 90% of the country’s 3,300 primary schools are under the patronage of the local Catholic bishop but Mr Quinn has suggested that could be reduced to half, although the Catholic hierarchy and school representatives suggest such a target is highly ambitious.


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