Broad welcome for patronagere form proposals

Plans to overhaul the system of religious patronage in primary schools was broadly welcomed yesterday, with many claiming it was merely the start of a process of change.

The report by the Advisory Group of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector makes a number of recommendations, including a divesting of patronage from existing religious patrons to begin in 47 catchment areas. It also calls for a preference register for parents with pre-school children and register of patrons, and makes a number of recommendations for stand-alone schools.

While many groups on either side of the debate welcomed the report — the result of six months of work by the group — there is likely to be further debate as its recommendations are discussed.

Fr Michael Drumm, executive chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, said there needed to be “local agreement” regarding patronage of schools and stressed the importance of parental rights and of consultation with parents.

He told RTÉ’s News at One that areas where there is parental demand for patronage needed to be identified and that some schools could amalgamate. He also said people needed to take care not to misinterpret the report, such as on issues like the display of religious artifacts.

“Schools are the most important social realities. We need to be careful about schools, we can’t swap them around.”

Paul Rowe, chief executive of Educate Together, which has long campaigned for changes to the patronage system, said the report had provided “a roadmap for change”.

“Educate Together specifically welcomes the report’s proposals for a parental preference register and the recommendation that it should be organised on the basis of areas rather than individual schools,” he said, adding that the report’s identification of 47 areas where the divesting of schools can begin was “a positive starting point”.

However, he said demand for non-denominational schools in any area should be addressed.

The president of the Irish Human Rights Commission, Maurice Manning, said the report was welcome but that “the recommendations require careful consideration”.

Des Hogan, acting chief executive of the commission, said the recommendation to delete rule 68 of the Rules for National Schools, which requires a religious spirit to permeate the whole work of the school, was particularly welcome.

Killian Forde, chief executive of the Integration Centre, said Education Minister Ruairi Quinn was “brave” in seeking to overhaul the patronage system and he now needed to ensure that this was “the beginning of an ongoing process”.

“As it is still unclear as to what it is exactly the people and especially the parents actually want the advisory group recommends that the system should reflect parents’ preference, therefore a register of parents of pre-school children should be established,” he said.

Mr Forde added that an action plan based on the department protocol on protecting the right of children with freedom to religion be adopted regarding the country’s 1,700 standalone schools.

The general secretary of the Irish Vocational Education Association Michael Moriarty, said he welcomed the group’s “firm recommendation that the Community National School pilot scheme, operated by the Vocational Education Committees, be maintained and expanded”.

The Council for Education of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference also welcomed the publication of the report but said it required detailed analysis.

A spokesperson said: “The report clearly affirms the importance of denominational schools and the continuance of faith formation, including sacramental preparation, in Catholic schools.”

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