Last year the Department of Education and Catholic bishops agreed a pilot arrangement involving the possible transfer of eight Catholic schools to multidenominational patrons.
It was the latest attempt to kick-start Ireland’s slow process of divesting (or reconfiguring) Catholic schools, which account for 88 per cent of all primary schools.
All education stakeholders agree that change is needed in response to growing demand among parents for multidenominational schooling options; the question is how to go about it.
Raheny, a suburban village halfway between Dublin city and Howth, was chosen as one of the areas for potential “reconfiguration”. Three Catholic schools that share the same campus were chosen: a coeducational junior school, Naíscoil Íde, a senior girls school, Scoil Áine and a senior boys’ school, Scoil Assaim.
The Irish Times spoke to parents in favour of divestment and parents against. Despite their very different views, there was unanimity on one point: the process was badly managed and lacked the rigour and engagement needed to bring about change.
Last November, the principal of Scoil Áine wrote to parents and guardians. “If the schools divest, the plan for this campus would be to have a multidenominational, co-ed school and a Catholic co-ed school on the same campus as separate entities,” she said.
“There is no road as to how this will be achieved, and we have received no answers to our questions from the Department of Education. There is no plan, except to decide to divest first and then see how the reconfiguration can be managed.”
Parents were then asked, in the same letter, to vote yes or no on the question: “Do you want to divest?”
That survey ultimately yielded a 17 per cent vote in favour of divestment, with 83 per cent voting against.
Parents were told they had to first decide on divestment and that a new patron would take over within less than a year. But they didn’t have any details of how, in practice, this would work.
“There was no idea of what we were voting on,” says Kathy, who voted against divestment. She says, through no fault of the school or parents, much of the opposition was centred on the “total lack of transparency, planning and information”, rather than the issues at hand.
There is no plan, except to decide to divest first and then see how the reconfiguration can be managed
Niamh, who supported divestment, was critical that potential multidenominational patrons were not invited to provide information.
Parents also said the entire parish should have been surveyed, including parents with preschool-aged children as well as those with children currently attending one of the schools. The Department of Education, however, declined to fund a professional survey, deciding instead that communication with parents would be through the facilitator and an email address at the department.
Bob and his wife, who were are among the parents who wanted change, found that public meetings quickly became highly divisive.
“Unfounded fears were raised about operational matters and nobody was on hand to provide correct, unbiased information, so a vacuum formed,” he says. “Tensions were high and we felt completely intimidated from giving the view of our family. We thought we would at least get a vote and that is where we would raise our hands, but the facilitator . . . said there was no need for a vote.”
[ 2022: Many parents reluctant to change patronage of school, survey finds ]
However, Seán, a Catholic parent, said a majority in the community were happy with current arrangements and felt his community had been singled out. Catholic parents were also concerned that their children may lose out on school places, he said.
In his report, the facilitator confirmed that “strong opposition to the process was expressed at the meetings with parents and at the meetings with school staff”.
“In these circumstances, it became difficult for parents and staff members who were in favour of multi-denominational patronage to have their views heard,” the report states.
Tensions were high and we felt completely intimidated from giving the view of our family
It also references “fear”, “mistrust”, “bias” and suspicions around “hidden agendas” among staff and parents over the process.
“The process was troubled by suspicions and lack of trust from an early stage,” the report states. “The comments and questions in the reports of the meetings with parents reveal that many parents had little confidence in the process. A lot of parents seemed to be fearful that there was a hidden agenda that had not been shared with them.
“The pilot initiative process seemed to give rise to considerable unease and anxiety among the school community, which may have contributed to individuals adopting entrenched positions and unwillingness to consider other views.”
He added that parents indicated that the three schools were working very well as a unit, and expressed concern that changing the patronage of one school would be divisive for the school community.
“Some parents indicated that their children no longer wanted to take part in religious education classes, but that they and others of like mind feel like outcasts if they opt out. These parents objected to the notion that their children should have to travel outside the local area to access education in a multi-denominational school,” the report notes.
The facilitator said the “current pilot initiative has run its course, and that the process has not provided either the evidential basis or across-community agreement for a change”. He concluded that the three Raheny schools should be retained without any change.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Labour spokesperson on education and a local TD, as well as his constituency colleague, Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan, both say that, if someone wished to design a process for reconfiguration that failed, it would look like this.
“I received an unprecedented level of contact from parents who were dissatisfied with the process and lack of information, and I’d struggle to think of another example of a consultation process like this,” says O’Callaghan.
Ó Ríordáin says the consultation lacked scientific basis and caused division in the community.
A lot of parents seemed to be fearful that there was a hidden agenda that had not been shared with them
But there is a recent example of how this process can work well.
Last year in Tipperary, St Mary’s junior boys school changed from Catholic to multidenominational patronage under the local education and training board, and is now Nenagh Community National School.
“The drive for change was a desire for coeducation, but as the school was going through a change anyway, it was suggested we considered changing patron too,” says John Gunnell, school principal.
“Nenagh had undergone change, with less mass attendance, and the parish priests knew we are not as Catholic as we used to be.
“There was very little concern from parents, they were widely consulted and advised that sacramental preparation would still be taken care of by the parish. There has been very little practical difference and nothing has changed except religion: we used to teach the Grow in Love [Catholic] syllabus and now we teach the [multidenominational] Goodness Me, Goodness You programme.”
Often the majority of parents in individual schools, including some parents who are not Catholic, are satisfied with their children’s schools as they are
Alan Hynes, chief executive of the Catholic Education Partnership, points out that while reconfiguration of patronage has national support, it can run into opposition in local communities.
“Often the majority of parents in individual schools, including some parents who are not Catholic, are satisfied with their children’s schools as they are,” Hynes says.
In a statement, the Department of Education said they will look at what worked well in the pilot and what could be done better, and work with stakeholders to apply the learning to future phases of work.
Educate Together, the first organisation to challenge the religious dominance of primary education back in the 1970s, says the current approach to divestment is not working.
The Government has committed to providing 400 multi-denominational primary schools by 2030 but, with no roadmap or interim targets, it is difficult to see how this will happen.
Luke O’Shaughnessy, communications manager at Educate Together, says this should be a key focus of the proposed Citizens’ Assembly on education, with a roadmap to achieve change involving input from all stakeholders.
“An independent advisory group, a nationwide and confidential survey of parents run by an impartial State agency, and a national annual register of school preference to track actual demand for different school types in local areas are likely to be part of a roadmap that identifies realistic pathways to change,” he says.
David Graham, communications officer with the Education Equality campaign group, says religious “indoctrination” should be placed outside school hours, allowing choice for religious and non-religious families, as was the case in years gone by.
But Alan Hynes, chief executive of the Catholic Education Partnership, says: “There is, at present, no consideration being given to any general instruction on allocations of particular timings for any subject within the school day.”
The names of parents have been changed at their request.
Divestment in numbers
88% – proportion of all primary schools which are Catholic in 2022, down from 91 per cent a decade earlier
5% – proportion of multidenominational primary schools
5% – proportion of Church of Ireland primary schools
1% – proportion of other minority faith schools