Educate Together, the main provider of multidenominational education, says new plans to transfer patronage away from hundreds of religious schools are "unfair and unworkable".
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.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton's latest initiative aims to increase the number of multidenominational schools and will involve the State leasing properties from Catholic bishops or trusts linked to the Catholic Church.
However, Educate Together said the initiative appears to be a “cosy deal” between the Catholic Church” and new Community National Schools run by Education and Training Boards (ETBs)
Paul Rowe, the organisation's chief executive, said the new process lacked transparency and was in danger of sidelining parents' wishes by giving too much influence to the Catholic Church to select its preferred patron body.
Under the new process, religious groups such as the Catholic Church will need to consent to any transfers of patronage and will also decide on who the new patron body will be.
Many church figures are keen on Community National Schools – operated by ETBs – on the basis that they allow faith formation classes.
Bishop Brendan Kelly, chair of the council for education at the Irish Bishops' Conference, welcomed the fact that sacramental preparation is allowed in these schools and pledged to engage with Mr Bruton over the new process.
The new process also gives ETBs a key role in identifying areas where there is demand from families for greater diversity.
Mr Rowe said he was concerned at a “conflict of interest” with the ETBs, which will be in charge of local surveys as well as a potential patron body for new schools.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mr Bruton insisted there was room in the new process to accommodate parents’ wishes for a range of multidenominational bodies, such as Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta and Community National Schools.
He also said the department was working out protocols to ensure there is no conflict of interest with ETBs.
Mr Bruton also defended the decision of allowing Catholic patrons to lease land to new patron bodies. He said land transfers have slowed down the process of divestment in the past and a leasing arrangement was a “practical and reasonable” way of moving the issue forward.
Prof John Coolahan, who oversaw the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism which reported in 2012, gave the new initiative a cautious welcome.
He said the latest approach of encouraging religious bodies to transfer their patronage was “an angle worth trying” and said the involvement of ETBs made sense, given their civic role.
“Political and religious leaders have a responsibility to ensure we provide more varied school provision which is more responsive to the needs of the 21st century,” he said.
He added there was no political will to “apply a stick” to the Catholic Church over the transfer of patronage, and that the new approach could work if religious leaders back it. On the face of it, he said it was likely that Community National Schools would emerge as the preferred option for the church.