‘Fairness more of an issue than patronage’

FAIR treatment by schools of all children, regardless of their beliefs, is more important to parents than who is patron, a forum on pluralism in education will hear this morning.

The National Parents Council-Primary (NPC-P) says transferring the patronage of the only school in a rural area from the Catholic bishop would not increase choice because there would still only be one local school, albeit with a different patron.

The advisory group of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector today begins three days of hearings with groups representing primary patrons, managers, principals, teachers and patrons.

The forum was set up by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn with a central aim being to increase the choice of school types for parents, particularly in urban areas where there may be scope for one or more schools under Catholic patronage to be divested to another patron. He has suggested up to half the country’s 3,300 Catholic primary schools could transfer but groups representing Catholic schools and their bishops consider such a target unrealistic.

The NPC-P will be the first group to discuss its views and says the basic request that parents have is not that their local school is Roman Catholic, Muslim, secular or any other type.

“It is that all children’s and families’ beliefs are respected and valued within the education system,” NPC-P chief executive Áine Lynch wrote in a submission to the forum.

“There are difficulties in the current system whereby children are excluded and removed during periods of the school day if their beliefs are not congruent with the patronage of the school and parents don’t want their children educated in the school’s belief system.”

The NPC-P says a clear and transparent complaints system must be available if policies and commitments are not followed through.

The Catholic Bishops Conference education council chairman, Bishop Brendan Kelly of Achonry, writes in its submission to the forum that Catholic schools are committed to facilitating parents who want their children excluded from religious education. But, the bishops say, they can only do so with whatever resources a school has from the minister that still allow it to comply with its policies on curriculum, supervision and child safeguarding.

“However, even with current resources Catholic schools have developed local arrangements to accommodate the valid wishes of such parents, and steps are currently in hand further to develop the practical arrangements required to be put in place,” the bishops’ submission says.

A survey of more than 800 school leaders by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network has found that just under half believe the current patronage models already accommodate diversity or only require minor modifications. But one-in-three feel the present models need to be completely replaced and the remaining one-in-six think a major overhaul is required.

The Islamic Foundation of Ireland says it is indebted to the Catholic Church for instilling a love for education into the Irish bloodstream. But, it tells the forum, “pluralism should not be a cause for fear nor should it be used to undermine the current types of patronage.”

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