Multidenominational primary schools are much more likely to be oversubscribed than Catholic schools, according to unpublished data collected by the Department of Education.
The issue has come into sharp focus following a row over the removal of the so-called Baptism barrier, which prevents oversubscribed Catholic schools from prioritising admission on the basis of religion. This law has emerged as a “stumbling block” to the reconfiguration of school patronage, according to the Catholic Education Partnership, which represents Catholic schools.
Department data show more than a quarter (25.9 per cent) of multidenominational primary schools are oversubscribed compared to just 5.8 per cent of Catholic schools. As a result, the inability of Catholic schools to prioritise children of their faith when offering places affects a very small minority of schools, the survey notes.
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In the case of these oversubscribed Catholic schools, records indicate that in 90 per cent of cases there was another school with a Catholic ethos in “close proximity” which had spare places. Close proximity was defined as within 2km in urban areas and 5km in rural locations.
The figures, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, are based on enrolment returns for the 2020/21 school year.
Education Equality, a parent-led advocacy group, said the position being adopted by Catholic groups effectively seeks to make the long-standing Government policy of school reconfiguration conditional upon the reinstatement of the “Baptism barrier” in Catholic-run schools.
“In doing so, we believe that they are seeking to hold the State hostage,” said a spokesman for Education Equality.
[ ‘Baptism barrier’ is stumbling block to reconfiguring patronage, says Catholic schools body ]
However, the Catholic Education Partnership said a decision in 2018 to remove the right of Catholic schools to discriminate on the basis of religion in their admission policies is a “discriminatory law, solely directed at Catholics, and no other faiths”.
The group said Catholic parents believe keeping the “status quo” in relation to the patronage of schools is their best option unless they can be guaranteed priority access to a school of their faith.
The programme for government commits to improving parental choice by meeting a target of delivering 400 multidenominational primary schools by 2030.
Catholic bishops have agreed to take part in a pilot initiative to provide greater choice for parents in eight areas where there are no multidenominational primary schools. The pilot areas include Arklow, Athlone, Dundalk and Youghal as well as parts of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.
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Tension and uncertainty
It was envisaged that Catholic schools in these areas would be reconfigured as multidenominational from this September onwards. However, the timescale is at risk of slipping amid tension and uncertainty in some communities over the process.
The Catholic Schools Partnership said that, as part of this process, Catholic parents have expressed a concern that if their community consents to the transfer of a Catholic school to another patron, they cannot be sure that they can secure enrolment for their child in remaining Catholic schools.
In Dublin’s Raheny — one of the areas earmarked for potential reconfiguration — school community meetings last month were marked by anger and confusion over schools being “railroaded” into change, according to some of those present.
Parents at one of the Catholic schools in the area — Scoil Áine — said a survey of parents found that 83 per cent were opposed to divesting or reconfiguring the patronage of the school. However, other parents in favour of change believe there is strong support for mixed, multidenominational national schools, but claim misinformation over the impact of change has circulated on social media and elsewhere.