Extensive parental surveys are to be conducted in six Tipperary towns in the coming weeks to establish whether there is a need, or a desire for, non-denominational Community National Schools to be established in the primary sector.
Should a need be identified, the likely outcome would be a divesting of patronage, with control to be taken from the religious authorities.
Nenagh, Roscrea and Thurles in North Tipperary; and Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir and Tipperary Town in South Tipperary; have all been identified by the New Schools Establishment Group as part of the 44 towns outside of Dublin to be surveyed to establish a need for diversity in the primary education sector. The six towns met with the four criteria laid down by the group, with Nenagh having been included late in the day following a review of the list on the basis of the 2011 census - the original list, which included the other five Tipperary towns was drawn up on the basis of information obtained through the 2006 census.
The process is well underway in Tipperary at the present time with fourteen education stakeholders having been asked by the Department of Education and Skills for expressions of interest, should the need arise to divest patronage as a result of parental demand. At present 96% of Tipperary primary level pupils are being educated in denominational schools - schools which have a particular religious ethos and groundbase - and the aim of the department is to establish whether a non-denominational facility should be established in the towns which will cater for children of all beliefs and religions.
A total of six of stakeholders have expressed interest in the towns and they include North Tipperary VEC, South Tipperary VEC, Waterford VEC, Educate Together, An Foras Patrunachta, and the National Learning Network. Tipperary, Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea each have three interested groups, while Carrick-on-Suir has four and Clonmel has five.
Depending on which stakeholder was successful in the process, should a non-denominational school be established in any of the towns, it could mean that faith development and preparation for the Sacraments of Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation will have to be undertaken outside of school hours, which would have huge implications for parents. At present, teachers play a key role in preparing children for the Sacraments, while at the same time remaining sensitive to the beliefs of non participating children and their parents. So, ultimately it will fall to parents to decide whether or not they want this to happen.
The plan in Tipperary is that parents will be furnished with information leaflets to advise them as to the nature of the survey and the process which will be underway. The survey itself will be conducted on-line with the National Parents Council assisting in encouraging parents to have their say.
However, there are still many questions left unanswered with the key issue of divesting of patronage central to the whole process -it is very difficult to see current patrons simply handing over their schools to a new patron. The Catholic Church in Tipperary, which is spread across two diocese (Waterford and Lismore, and Killalloe) and the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, is presently taking steps to ensure that it’s position and stance on the issue is portrayed in an accurate and fair manner.
A position paper issued by the Catholic Schools Partnership (CSP) – the new umbrella group for Catholic schools - represents the first shot in what is likely to be a long war on school patronage. Minister Quinn wants 1,500 schools (about 50 per cent of all primary schools) transferred to other patrons, but achieving this will be a very tall order. The CSP paper outlines the value of Catholic schools as places where the emphasis is on “the dignity of the human person as a child of God called to work with other persons in creating an inclusive community in service of the common good.”
The argument is that a transfer of patronage should only take place where sufficient demand for a school under different patronage can be demonstrated, following some pilot projects, and only after dialogue with the local community.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn established a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector back in 2011 and received a report of the Advisory Group to the Forum back in June.The Forum was described as a key commitment in the Programme for Government and also something that many stakeholders in the education sector had been calling for, for many years.
Minister Quinn said, “It was clear from the outset that there is a compelling need for the patronage of our schools to reflect the changes that have already taken place in wider society. Ireland has changed, demographically and socially. We now have a much more diverse population than we had even two decades ago. In addition, many people’s views about the place of religion in society and in their own lives have undergone profound change.This has lead to an increased demand for new forms of multi-denominational and non-denominational schooling, as well as increased demand for Irish language schooling. This increased demand calls for a plan for the future which will create a better match between the type of school provision available and the make-up of the communities they serve.”
Minister Quinn explained that the divesting process will involve the gathering of evidence by the Forward Planning Section of his Department on the scale of divestment required in the identified areas including the six Tipperary towns. Officials have examined the practicalities of conducting surveys of parental choice on such a scale in detail, and they will be consulting with patron bodies on the tasks to be completed in the coming months.
“I believe there will be a lot of interest in each area where a survey will be conducted and I am anxious that the local debate and surveys take place in a calm and respectful manner.Parents will be given full information on the different types of schools and the different patron bodies. Helplines will be put in place during the survey period to deal with any queries from parents.My Department will consult with the patron bodies on a code of practice which will ensure that local discussions are conducted in a reasonable fashion.I have decided that the New Schools Establishment Group’s remit will be expanded to support the divesting process.
There is a large public expectation that the divestment and transfer of patronage will be substantial and happen quickly.
“In my own personal opinion, where the church agrees to transfer patronage of one or two schools in a town, it seems reasonable that the remaining Catholic schools could be more outwardly publicly celebratory in the manifestation of their Catholicism. However, this matter links back to the development of a White Paper, and I look forward to seeing the range of submissions which we will receive in the coming months,” Minister Quinn added.