Parents of pupils at Catholic primary schools, as well as potential incoming parents, are to be surveyed to assess the level of support for changing to a multi-denominational ethos.
Some 90 per cent of the 3,600 primary schools in the State remain Catholic in ethos, while just 5 per cent (about 170) are multi-denominational.
Efforts to transfer patronage away from religious-run schools over the past decade or more have proved slow and, in some cases, divisive.
Department of Education secretary general Bernie McNally, however, told the annual conference of Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) that it remains the Government’s objective is to have at least 400 multi-denominational schools in the primary system by the end of the decade to improve parental choice.
She said a recent pilot initiative aimed at delivering multi-denominational schooling options in eight areas resulted in two schools transferred from Catholic patronage to their local Education and Training Board and becoming multi-denominational Community National Schools.
She said the department was hopeful there will be a number of other transfers of patronage and change of ethos to multi-denominational in the short term.
Ms McNally said the department has reviewed feedback submitted directly by school communities in the pilot areas which will feed into a new review.
“This should provide a pathway forward on the process for providing multi-denominational options for parents in other towns and areas of the country,” she said.
The review, due to be completed before the end of this year, will likely include an updated strategy and framework for delivering on the Government commitment for increasing multi-denominational provision, she said.
“The Department is currently working on the practicalities of the Department running an online parental survey of Catholic primary schools regarding reconfiguration. This would be for parents of children in the school and also potential incoming parents,” she said.
“As part of this process, it is our intention to keep school staff informed as the process progresses. We are currently examining the best ways of providing specific information directly to all staff.”
She added that the Department was conscious of the need to give concise information to parents, school staff and the wider community.
As a result, the department is designing a new section of the gov.ie website to provide “bespoke, accessible and clear information on reconfiguration”.
“The Department’s overall goal remains to establish a strong process, that has the support of patrons and local communities, and which will enable us to continue to increase the number of multi-denominational primary schools across the country,” she said.
Earlier this year, ETBI, the representative body for the State’s 16 regional education and training boards, said a survey showed strong support for multi-denominational education.
The ETBI-commissioned poll, based on a representative sample of 1,011 adults by research firm Opinion, found that 61 per cent of adults had a preference for multi-denominational education compared to 9 per cent who had a preference for a religious body to provide education.
Catholic bishops have expressed support for the school reconfiguration process.
However, they have warned that a law which prohibits Catholic schools from prioritising the enrolment of local children of the same faith is emerging as a “stumbling block” to the process.