Most of the country’s 3,300 primary schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church, and many communities have no other choice of school.
Fionnuala Kilfeather, chief executive of the National Parents Council (Primary), said schools are legally bound to respect the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions and ways of life in our multicultural society. She was addressing delegates at the council’s annual conference in Castlebar.
“Unfortunately, some Catholic bishops have instructed school boards that their admission policy should give first priority to Catholics within the parish and second priority to those outside the parish, with a descending order of priorities for other children,” she said.
Ms Kilfeather called for urgent consultation about the kind of schools communities want, which could place an onus on the State to provide more than one type of school.
She acknowledged, however, that there is little scope for new schools because of falling pupil numbers and the cost to the State in areas were Catholic schools have empty classrooms.
“In order that provision is made for all children in an increasingly pluralist and multiethnic Ireland, the Catholic Church could not have a monopoly on buildings and might have to hand over schools to other patrons or to the State,” Ms Kilfeather said.
Education Minister Noel Dempsey outlined to the conference the enormous price tag attached to supporting diversity by funding schools under the Gaelscoil and Educate Together ethos.
“We estimate the cost of permanent accommodation for all recently recognised new schools in rented accommodation will be some 400 million,” he said.
Cardinal Desmond Connell said he is fully committed to upholding the value of denominational education, be it Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish or Muslim.
“At times, Catholic education and, in particular, Catholic schools have been portrayed as sectarian and intolerant. This misrepresents the nature of the Catholic school and in particular the true character of Catholic religions education,” he told the Catholic Primary School Managers Association annual general meeting.
The NPC annual conference also heard that a 55% cut in State funding has led to a crisis in its training programme for parents on boards of management. It was highlighted as ironic that, while the Government is urging more parental involvement in schools, the council is now less able to help.
However Mr Dempsey said his officials were waiting for outstanding details from the council before finalising their training budget allocation.