The Government has pledged to improve parental choice by delivering hundreds of multidenominational primary schools by 2030 by transferring the patronage of religious-run schools to others and building new schools. Catholic schools account for 89 per cent of primary schools, while about 5 per cent have a multidenominational ethos.
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy questioned if there would be any “clawback” for the State for these reconfigured schools given that religious-run schools are likely to have received extensive public investment over the years in the form of extensions or upkeep.
Hubert Loftus, assistant secretary at the Department of Education, said in reply that the “reconfiguration” approach will involve the multidenominational patron “becoming a tenant” in the religious patron’s school. He gave the example of a Catholic school changing its patronage to become an Educate Together or multidenominational community national school.
In such a case, he said, the Catholic patron would retain ownership and be paid rent which would be decided on a case-by-case basis given the level of State investment in the building. In the past, Mr Loftus said, similar rental arrangements had been in the order of 10 per cent of local market rents.
Mr Loftus said trustees — typically religious bodies, own 87 per cent of publicly funded schools in Ireland — while 9 per cent are owned by the Minister for Education. The remaining 4 per cent are owned by education and training boards.
The committee also heard of frustration among parents over the access to appropriate school places and special needs assistants in schools for children with additional needs.
Department officials told the committee that the National Council for Special Education had advised that there were sufficient school places outside the Dublin area to meet the needs of children with special needs. However, Fine Gael TD Colm Burke said he had been contacted by a number of families in his Cork North-Central constituency who cannot find appropriate school places for their children for September.
Even where children have a place, Fianna Fáil TD James O’Connor said, some are forced to travel long distances. He said a child who needs a special school place in Youghal, Co Cork, for example, must travel out of their community to Cork city or Dungarvan in order to access one.
He also questioned whether schools were receiving sufficient support for students with special needs given that one school with 800 pupils in the Cork East constituency has a single special needs assistant (SNA).
Martina Mannion, an assistant secretary at the department, said more than 1,000 SNAs were being hired this year which would bring overall numbers to more than 19,000 for the first time. She said a new special school recently opened in the Carrigaline area of Cork to meet the demand for children with more complex needs and a second was due to open in the Rochestown area.
Ms Mannion said this would go “a significant way” to meeting local needs, but she was conscious that the department needs to do more, especially in the Dublin area.
Gavan O’Leary, assistant secretary at the department, said that more than €2 billion of the department’s budget would be invested in meeting special education needs.
“A very significant amount has been achieved. For example, by the end of this year we will have 2,500 special classes across the country,” he said. “However, there is still an amount to be done and the department is working intensively to ensure that all children with special educational needs can access a high quality and inclusive education in their locality.”