Under ambitious programme for government plans to get the number of multi-denominational primary schools up to 400 by 2020, Education Minister Richard Bruton will soon set annual targets for the next five years. However, in order to add impetus to flagging efforts to cater for wider parental preferences, an emphasis may be put on the model of community national schools run by education and training boards (ETBs).
These have been opened in 11 of the areas where new schools were needed to match local population increases, but the Educate Together model was more popular among parents in 28 areas where demand for more choice emerged from surveys in 2012 and 2013.
Those surveys took place to establish if there was enough demand for Catholic bishops to be asked to transfer existing schools to alternative patrons. They were held in 44 areas with little or no choice for parents and no likelihood of new schools being built due to steady populations.
However, the divestment process has seen very little progress. Only eight new schools have been established in those areas to date, and most of them operate from temporary accommodation rather than in properties transferred to them from religious-owned schools.
Mr Bruton suggested community national schools offer strengths that could allow for smoother transfer, as well as the prospect for quicker response to any future changes in parental preferences. While he does not suggest promoting this over other models, he told reporters that it has many strengths.
A key difference between the ETB-run community national schools and Educate Together schools, both of which cater for children of all faiths and none, is on the timing of religious faith formation. The former allows for faith formation and sacramental preparation to take place within the school day, but Educate Together schools do not.
An increased focus on community national schools could be perceived as an effort to appease Catholic patrons, who may prefer a model where children can have faith formation provided in school time. However, Mr Bruton said his main focus is in catering in a better way for parents’ growing demands for choice.
“What I want to do is get a variety of options out there that meets changing parental needs and I know those are changing very rapidly and we need to find a way of accommodating them,” he said. “
Another option to increase the mix of school types will be to develop a model of having different patrons on the same school site.”
He has asked his officials for a clear set of targets for each year beginning from the 2017/2018 school year.
They had discussions earlier this year with Catholic bishops and other patron bodies, in which it was acknowledged that new life needs to be brought to the existing divestment process.
A spokesperson for Educate Together said: “We welcome the commitment in the programme for government to addressing the need for ‘multi- and non-denominational’ education. This need is growing more urgent as more and more parents express their preference for Educate Together schools.”