Schools urged to publish polices showing they are ‘genuinely inclusive’

Department says change of religious patronage ‘has not been as rapid as envisaged’

Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn said there was a risk “that we can overlook some fundamental rights to which pupils and their parents are entitled”. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn said there was a risk “that we can overlook some fundamental rights to which pupils and their parents are entitled”. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Tue, Jul 1, 2014, 21:09

Schools under religious patronage are being urged by the Department of Education to publish policies explaining exactly how they include people of other faiths and none.

In a progress report on the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, the Department says there are schools which are “very welcoming and open towards pupils of all backgrounds”.

However, “all of these schools may not reflect these good practices fully in their written policies”.

The report also notes that the divestment of patronage “has not been as rapid as originally envisaged”, although some progress has been made in transferring ownership.

On diversity policies in schools, the Department says it accepts “one size does not fit all” but it advocates better communication between patrons and parents.

A number of options are proposed to facilitate children opting out of religious instruction, including moving them to another room for supervision, or to another class during faith formation lessons.

Another option is to cluster such religious classes “so that for example, rather than having 30 minutes per day five days a week it would be possible to have one or two longer sessions per week.

“This would facilitate withdrawal arrangements. However, there would be concerns about pedagogical issues for younger children with such long lessons, which may not be suitable for younger children.”

Citing a “potential mismatch between aspiration and achievement” in inclusivity, the report notes: “There is a risk that the absence of a complaint from a parent will be equated with satisfaction.”

It continues: “A school which permits enrolment by those of a different faith group or of no faith, but does not move actively to welcome these pupils and include them is taking a very minimalist view of inclusiveness. The absence of active discouragement to enrol does not equal a genuinely open and inclusive approach on the part of the school.”

The report follows a consultation process which attracted 434 submissions from parents, teachers and other stakeholders.

The document “aims to inform schools of emerging good practices on inclusivity, rather than being prescriptive”, the Department said, although it contains implied criticism of certain practices.

Some 90 per cent of the state’s 3,169 primary schools are under Catholic patronage, and a further 6 per cent are controlled by Protestant churches. The report notes this is “unique among developed countries” and doesn’t reflect the pluralist nature of Ireland today.

Some 43 areas were surveyed following the forum’s original report in 2012, and in 28 of them “sufficient demand for a greater choice of patronage was identified”. However, this has led to only two changes of patronage: at a Church of Ireland school at Ballysokerry, outside Ballina, Co Mayo; and at a former Christian Brothers school in Basin Lane, Dublin.

Both are coming under the patronage Educate Together, which is also setting up three new schools under the Department’s reform process in Malahide, Co Dublin; Trim, Co Meath and Tramore, Co Waterford.

Professor John Coolahan who chaired the patronage forum said the update was “valuable and timely”. The document “provides guidance to school communities on being more inclusive into the future”, he said.

“While it notes that progress on the recommended divestment of patronage process has been less than expected to date, the document indicates that Irish society is moving towards a more pluralist primary school system, respecting the rights of all citizens. It also reflects a more informed public awareness of the issues than was the case a few years ago.”

Publishing the report, Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn said: “Denominational patrons have been an important part of this and will continue to play a strong role in our education system. However, our schools can be busy places. There is a risk that we can overlook some fundamental rights to which pupils and their parents are entitled.

“These issues may not be a pressing concern for parents who are happy with their children’s schools. This does not, however, release us from our responsibilities to make sure that schools are as welcoming and as inclusive as possible to all pupils of all backgrounds, beliefs and nationalities.”