The issue has been the subject of criticism in recent weeks, with Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon’s office still in talks with the department.
It is planned to retain the information that is currently being gathered for a primary online database (POD) through schools until children turn 30, something the minister again acknowledged was causing anxiety.
She told the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) annual conference the department is very conscious and respectful of data protection issues and citizens’ right to privacy.
“Some people may be concerned that their data is being kept for an excessively long period of time. Others are uncomfortable with the idea of an official record of their school enrolment not being available to them if they require access to it at a future date,” she said.
“My department will review, on an ongoing basis, our retention policy, taking account of these concerns.”
She told principals that PPS numbers were intended to be a unique identifier for people to assist and improve the efficiency with which public services are provided, such as student grants and early childhood care and education.
She added that a similar database has been in operation at second-level for over 20 years, and having one at primary level would provide information on school completion and retention rates, transfer rates to second-level and third-level, and subject choices. It would also provide more general information on what aspects of the system work as well as up-to-date figures for future planning and resource allocation.
However, Fianna Fáil education spokesman Charlie McConalogue says she must clarify why there is a need to retain sensitive details of pupils for so long.
“I call on the minister to put on hold the implementation of this database until the very serious security concerns surrounding its operation are addressed. It is unacceptable that she has threatened to cut funding to schools should some parents fail to provide relevant PPS details,” he said.
IPPN president Brendan McCabe told the Irish Examiner that schools were disappointed the POD was not capturing more information that would reduce interruptions to the running of schools by information requests from outside agencies.
“It will help in some ways but not in all areas yet. Hopefully in time it will capture everything that other stakeholders would need and do away with the need for regular form-filling by schools,” he said.
“We know people have had concerns about who has access to the information but it would only be shared with those agencies who had correct and right access to it in the past anyway,” he said.
Christian-run schools have a duty to accommodate non-religious families in a rapidly diversifying society, a Church of Ireland bishop has said.
In the same week that humanists met with Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan to air concerns over limits on access for children to primary schools, the question of how to cater for religious diversity was addressed by Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross, Paul Colton.
“Schools, particularly schools under religious patronage [because often they are the only option in a neighbourhood], have a particular obligation today to be places of diversity and inclusion; not in some reluctant, half-hearted or residual way, but positively and with affirmation of diversity,” he said.
He told the Irish Primary Principals Network conference on Thursday that the rights of minorities must be accommodated as a matter of justice and equality.
“And I don’t mean only religious minorities, I refer also to those who are now part of one of the largest minority groups in the State, those who are not religious or who oppose a religious look,” said Bishop Colton.
“They have rights too.”
One in five schools can not cater for all children seeking enrolment, but the 95% of schools under denominational patronage are legally allowed to prioritise children of their own faith.
While Catholic schools are more likely to face such pressures, a 2011 survey of families in the 175 Church of Ireland primary schools found that only 44% belonged to Protestant faiths. A further 22% were Catholic, 20% were from unspecified Christian backgrounds, and 7% were of no religion.
Of 195 Protestant primary schools, 117 — or 60% — have four teachers or fewer.
The issue of access for children who do not share the faith of a school was examined by the 2011 Forum for Primary Patronage and Pluralism. However, with little progress on divestment of Catholic primary schools to alternative patrons in urban areas with demand for more choice, the minister is under pressure to address the issue.