Minister for Education Richard Bruton is drawing up plans to encourage the Catholic Church to transfer the patronage of hundreds of primary schools to other models such as State-run schools.
At present more than 90 per cent of the State’s 3,200 primary schools are under Catholic patronage. However, efforts to provide greater choice for parents have proven slow and divisive.
Mr Bruton says the Government is planning to increase the number of multi-denominational schools to 400 within the next 15 years through a combination of new schools and an accelerated process of divestment.
In a media briefing, he said Community National Schools - which are run by local education boards under the patronage of the State - are a “good model”, and provided an ideal solution to some of the stumbling blocks surrounding divestment.
There are 11 such primary schools at present, mostly in areas of population growth.
Mr Bruton’s plan would likely see the emergence of significant numbers of these schools in long-established communities.
There has been resistance at local level among parents - and among some clergy - over the divestment of Catholic schools.
Mr Bruton said the church was well-disposed to Community National Schools, which provide an opportunity for faith-formation classes for a variety of different religions during the school day.
“It has the State as a patron, which has a lot of merit in it, and it accommodates different forms of religious instruction - and that has a lot of attraction,” he said.
“I want a variety of options which meet parental needs… whatever route gets there with greater speed will be important.”
He said there were also other options available to help deliver additional multi-denominational schools. These include:
* New schools in areas of high population growth, where there is an open competition for patronage;
* New forms of joint patronage. Mr Bruton said this model has worked well at second-level, where there are often two patrons such as a religious body and the Education and Training Board (ETB), or other combinations;
* The existing divestment programme set up under the previous government, which has identified about 50 denominational schools which may be divested.
Mr Bruton said he was keen to emphasise he did not favour any particular route over another.
However, he said a move to transfer the patronage of Church-run schools to Community National Schools offered a chance to make speedy progress.
“I’m not saying I want to move to one approach, but it’s a model which offers the opportunity to make progress quickly and offers long-term flexibility. If you do a Swot [strengths and weaknesses] analysis, it has clear strengths.”
Fianna Fáil's education spokesman Thomas Byrne TD said he welcomed plans to offer parents greater diversity and choice.
"Community National Schools were a concept which started under a Fianna Fáil government in my experience at second level - Education and Training Boards have done a tremendous job and have a great track record," he said.
Any moves to transfer the patronage of Catholic schools to Community National Schools are likely to receive a cautious welcome from church authorities.
Senior clergy have acknowledged the need to divest many of its schools, while the Catholic Schools Partnership has spoken approvingly of the model.
Last year, Fr Michael Drumm of the Catholic Schools Partnership said there was potential to look at joint patronage between the Church and Community National Schools.
Education and Training Boards Ireland general secretary Michael Moriarty welcomed Mr Bruton's proposals and said its primary schools were a good fit for any divestment as they provided for faith and belief nurturing.
Any such moves, however, are likely to draw criticism from Educate Together, a multi-denominational patron body which has been critical of the Community National School model.
It argues that faith formation classes lead to the segregation of children and that they are not sufficiently transparent.