Churches' control of primary schools to be copperfastened


THE control by the churches of more than 3,200 primary schools is to be copperfastened in law for the first time under new guarantees drawn up for the Minister for Education.

Additions to the lease for all primary schools will give the religious patrons wide ranging powers of veto over the management of their schools in return for increased involvement by parents and teachers.

The document, known as a deed of variation, has caused concern among some groups who believe it will "cast in stone" the power of the churches in education for generations to come.

The patrons of schools usually the local bishop will retain the right to formally appoint the board. They will also appoint the chairperson who holds the casting vote and may dissolve the board if they feel the ethos of the school is threatened.

The confidential document seen by The Irish Times recommends that all 3,000 Catholic primary schools be "managed in accordance with the doctrines, practices and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church as stated by the Irish Episcopal Conference and interpreted by the patron of the school".

A corresponding ethos statement for Church of Ireland schools states that nothing shall oblige the school to accept as pupils children who are not members of the Church of Ireland and acceptance of such pupils shall at all times be at the discretion of the board of management.

The board will strive to ensure that at all times a majority of the pupils of the school are members of the Church of Ireland".

The eight member board will include two parents, two teachers and two nominees of the patron. Two further members, who must have a commitment to the ethos of the school, will be co-opted from the wider community.

In Catholic schools, these cooptees will be required to have "an understanding of, and commitment to, Catholic education". In Church of Ireland schools, they will have to be "vestrymen elected members of the parish committee. Forthcoming legislation drawn up by Ms Breathnach will also underpin the right of the churches to veto the appointment of teachers of a different religion to their schools.

The Education (Education Board and Boards of Management) Bill 1996 aims for a "democratic and representational element" in school management rather than "any interference with the essentially denominational nature of the school system".

"This denominational structure has constitutional support and any disproportionate or unreasonable interference with it is likely to be unconstitutional", the draft legislation states.

The deed of variation was drawn up after lengthy negotiations between the main school management bodies under a facilitator, Mr John McCarthy, appointed, by the Minister.

It has the approval of the Catholic Church, which believes it provides a legal guarantee for the continuation of Catholic schools. However, representatives of parents, Protestant schools and multi denominational schools have raised objections.

The ethos statement drawn up for Gaelscoileanna says all subjects in its schools, except English and foreign languages, will be taught through Irish. Educate Together, the management body for the 14 multi denominational schools, commits itself to providing a multi denominational, coeducational, child cent red and democratically managed education.