His department said there is no conflict of interest in asking education and training boards (ETBs) to have a role in the selection of areas where bishops or religious orders should hand over schools to new patrons.
But Educate Together says the boards have a vested and direct interest in the process. It is competing with local ETBs to open four new multi-denominational primary schools in Cork and Dublin.
The ETBs are being asked to survey pre-school children’s parents in areas where there is limited choice of primary schools outside of those with religious patrons.
But the Department of Education said the selection of alternative patrons where demand emerges for multi-denominational schools will be left to the existing owner of school facilities, and only based on consultation with local parents and with those proposing to set up new schools on those sites.
Educate Together chief executive Paul Rowe said this gives these bishops as patrons, or trusts who own the school properties, a disproportionate influence over the process and denies the fundamental democratic rights of parents.
“The proposed plan seems to be designed to facilitate the handover of religious schools to ETB-run schools in return for payment,” he said.
A key feature of an ETB-run community national school (CNS) is that the preparation of children for religious rites of passage, such as First Communion for Catholic pupils, is permitted as part of the school day.
This aspect was highlighted by Mr Bruton when he publicly endorsed the CNS model last week, before yesterday’s announcement of how he proposes to progress the divestment of religious-run schools in areas where there is not enough population growth to justify state funding for new schools.
He said that the process he is proposing would be based on transparency and fairness, with parents’ views to be central to any decisions.
But rather than transferring properties to be occupied by schools under a new patron, they would instead be leased because of the complexities that have seen just 10 schools change hands so far in a process begun in 2012 to widen school choices for parents.
Mr Rowe cited previous indications on behalf of Catholic schools and patrons that they preferred the CNS model.
In Educate Together schools, any faith-specific activities are not facilitated during the school day.
Bishop Brendan Kelly, chair of the council for education of the Irish Catholic Bishops’s Conference, welcomed Mr Bruton’s announcement and his statements last Friday in relation to the teaching of religion with sacramental preparation in community national schools.
He said the council will continue to engage with the minister, his department and ETBs while they study the proposals.
Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) said ETBs’ only role will be identifying areas by asking parents if they would like a multi-denominational or non-denominational school in their areas.
“The question thereafter of what type of school people would prefer will be a different phase of the process,” said ETBI general secretary Michael Moriarty.