The timescale for the first hand-overs of Catholic schools in areas where parents want more choice will be revealed by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn today.
He is expected to announce details of local surveys in some of the 43 towns and city suburbs already identified as needing greater variety of primary schools.
Details will also emerge of how denominational schools in smaller communities will be expected to cater for children of other faiths, as more than 95% of the country’s 3,300 primary schools remain in the control of religious patrons, including 90% where the Catholic bishop is the patron.
This will most likely involve changes to the law to uphold the rights of pupils at schools with religious patrons if they belong to a different faith, or none. There could also be moves to remove the legal entitlement of schools to give preference to children of their own faith to cover the 20% of schools where demand exceeds available places.
But the more immediate measures will be focused on the hand-over of Catholic school buildings in areas where there is insufficient population growth for new schools to be set up.
The changes come on foot of the report in April by an advisory group to Mr Quinn’s Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector. Following public sessions last year and submissions from parents groups, religious leaders, school managers, and teacher unions, the group chaired by Prof John Coolahan made a series of major recommendations, including:
* Removal of preparation for sacraments such as First Communion and Confirmation from class-time in Catholic schools;
* Removal of a stipulation in the 1965 primary school rules that religion is the most important subject;
* Development of a new primary curriculum for education regarding religion and beliefs, and also about ethics.
The 47 communities identified in 2010 by the Department of Education as areas where patronage of local Catholic schools might be divested include seven parts of Dublin and a number of large towns in Cork, Galway, Kildare, Meath, Tipperary, Waterford, and Wexford.
Only 15 of the 250-plus primary schools in those areas are multi-denominational and 32 of the communities have no multi-denominational school.
With the assistance of the National Parents Council Primary, the views of families in some areas will be taken in a series of local surveys on patronage.
The support of the Catholic bishops has been key to progressing the initiative, initially lead by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin. But the Catholic Schools Partnership representing religious orders and bishops is insisting on proper local consultations before any decisions are made.
The Coolahan report suggested pre-school children’s parents and those of primary pupils be consulted, and that the Department of Education should prioritise areas with the greatest need for new types of schools.
Groups such as multi-denominational schools patron Educate Together are forming local committees with a view to offering their model as the preferred option. But groups representing all-Irish education such as An Foras Pátrúnachta and Gaelscoileanna are also keen to have their schools as a choice for parents.
Journalist: Niall Murray