More than 90% of primary schools across the country remain in the hands of the Church despite attempts to give parents more choice in how children are educated.
Fianna Fáil and Labour hit out at the Government for not fully addressing an issue which means parents have no option but to send their children to a Catholic school.
The Programme For Government commits to reaching 400 multi-denominational and non-denominational schools by 2030. It says this will be done through a combination of divestment and construction of schools to meet an increasing school-going population.
Of the schools divested by the Church in the past six years, just one was handed over in the last 12 months, while the remaining 10 happened between 2012 and 2016.
A system set up by Education Minister Richard Bruton in January 2017 to speed up divestment of schools has yet to survey parents to establish where there is a demand for greater choice.
Educate Together criticised these plans, claiming they “could not be any less focused on the actual needs of families and Irish society in general, or any more suited to the Catholic Church”.
A spokesperson for Mr Bruton said: “There have been previous efforts at transferring patronage but we have to be honest and admit that they haven’t worked. Only 10 schools transferred to multi-denominational patronage as a result of the previous process set up by minister Ruairí Quinn in 2012.”
The spokesperson said parents of preschool children in 16 areas across the country will “soon” be surveyed on the type of schools they want in their area.
“This process is designed to build on the lessons learned from the previous process and deliver more multi-denominational and non-denominational schools, and that is what we believe it will do.”
Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne said that, given the low number of schools handed over to date, there is still “no guarantee that any divestment will happen” under the new system.
Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said: “The department has to talk tough with patrons. Unless the patron body is absolutely convinced that it needs to change, it’s not going to happen.”
While he said, in general, bishops recognise there is a need to divest, they have come up against pressure from individual school bodies. This was echoed by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who recently said: “I’ve met resistance, not among the bishops but among some of the bureaucracies involved in school policy. Until that happens, there’s going to be no real choice.”
As part of the system, Education and Training Boards (ETBs) have been asked to survey parents. The department hopes this can be completed by June. Each ETB will then prepare a report outlining the level of demand for diversity in its area.
This model will focus on live transfer of schools, to allow schools continue with staff, pupils, and the majority of the board of management while it transfers from the patronage of one organisation to another.
“In most cases, it is envisaged that the transfer would be by way of voluntary live school transfer, rather than the amalgamation and closure model which was followed previously, with all of the complications and legal difficulties and time delays involved. It is expected that in many cases the school property will be leased from the existing landowner,” said the department spokesperson.
Educate Together called on Mr Bruton to reconsider this plan. It believes it will give Catholic bishops the final say in whether they transfer schools and to whom they transfer.
“This gives the Church continued undue influence on education that is inappropriate for Ireland in the 21st century,” said the group’s Luke O’Shaughnessy.