Catholic bishops have expressed concern over the ability of Catholic primary schools to remain true to their ethos following the removal of the so-called “baptism barrier”.
The concerns are contained in records of meetings between Department of Education officials and representatives of Catholic bishops – the Irish Episcopal Commission – regarding attempts to transfer more Catholic schools to multi-denominational patrons.
Almost 90 per cent of primary schools are currently under Catholic patronage, while about 5 per cent have a multi-denominational ethos.
The programme for government commits to improving parental choice by meeting a target of delivering 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030. In 2018 legislation was introduced to remove the baptism barrier, which allowed Catholic primary schools to use religion as a selection criterion in school admissions.
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Department of Education records released under the Freedom of Information Act show Irish Episcopal Commission representatives expressed their willingness to engage with a “reconfiguration” process for schools to provide more choice for parents following the ban on the baptism barrier,
However, it notes that the commission “made it clear to the department that they are concerned about their ability to cater for the many parents who wish to continue to enrol their children in schools of Catholic ethos and the ability of those schools to be true to that ethos and their characteristic spirit”.
“We understand that this concern exists in relation to existing schools which, in accordance with the provisions of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018, cannot prioritise applicant children on the grounds of religion, and that where a school is oversubscribed, this can result in some Catholic children not getting a place in school while children who are not Catholic do get a place.
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“We understand also that there is concern that such a situation could arise more frequently should the availability of places in schools of Catholic ethos in a given area decrease on foot of a reconfiguration of a school from Catholic to multi-denominational.
“While there are other challenges concerning curricular development, the admissions issue is a key issue for the IEC [Irish Episcopal Commission],” the record adds.
Notwithstanding these issues Catholic bishops have agreed to take part in a pilot initiative to provide greater choice for parents in eight areas where there are no multi-denominational primary schools. The pilot areas are Arklow, Athlone, Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, Limerick and Youghal.
As part of this process facilitators appointed by the Department of Education, along with local Catholic patrons, have been engaging directly with school authorities at a local level. For schools which may form part of this process, school patrons and facilitators have begun engaging with school communities.
The records state that if the plan for transfers to take place in September 2023 is to be achieved, decisions would need to be made prior to the end of 2022. However, well-placed sources say the timeline has slipped considerably and tensions have arisen in the case of plans to transfer the patronage of a Catholic school in the Dublin suburb of Raheny.
All three primary schools in Raheny are under Catholic patronage: Scoil Áine, an all-girls school, Scoil Assaim, an all-boys school, and Naíscoil Íde, a junior school.
The plan has sparked opposition among some parents and school staff who are opposed to any changes in patronage and who do not want to become coeducational.
However, a group of parents who have established the Raheny Community for Co-Education group believe a majority in the area want a mixed, mulit-denominational national school. Facilitation meetings have been held in the area with the aim of reducing tensions and achieving a consensus.
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The tensions have revived memories of controversy in the Malahide and Portmarnock area in 2019 when parents were surveyed on plans to transfer the patronage from one of the local schools. It was accompanied by claims over what might happen to schools if they were taken over by a non-denominational patron such as the end of Christmas concerts or Easter celebrations.