A new model of school patronage at primary-level has been proposed.
The model would see the Catholic Church and State management boards control schools under a partnership agreement.
Speaking at an education conference, Fr Michael Drumm, chairman of the Catholic Schools Partnership, which represents Catholic bishops in the education sector, said "patronage is adaptable" and that he would welcome new alliances with other patrons.
He said the Catholic Church was already in partnership with Education and Training Boards (ETBs) in 48 designated community colleges, and said that “you could have mirror structures at primary”.
“There are already models of joint-patronage at primary. Catholic and Protestant bodies are joint patrons in a small number of schools. So there is any amount of models of partnerships,” he said.
“It should not be perceived to be, ‘It’s just this way’; patrons can share with other patrons.”
Fr Drumm was speaking at the annual conference in Galway of ETB Ireland, the representative organisation for management bodies previously known as VECs.
He said plans under the divestment process to transfer a “living school” from one patron to another had not worked, and that new approaches were needed to create more parental choice.
Fr Drumm said he welcomed the addition of ETB-operated community national schools to the education landscape - 11 have been created since 2008 under a diversity initiative backed by the Department of Education.
However, he said that there remained a “lack of knowledge of potential alternatives” to Catholic patronage and “a dearth of sufficient information for parents”.
“It is true to say that where consultation processes have taken place, there is an insufficient understanding of what a community national school might be,” he said.
“The department conducted surveys of the demand for change of patronage in 2012, and these showed “the best part of 10 per cent of parents would avail of an alternative if it was available to them”, said Fr Drumm.*
Fr Drumm said he believed that this still gave an accurate picture of the level of demand, even though “ETBs can legitimately say the model that they were proposing is not widely understood”.
Meeting with bishops
Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan told the conference that she would be meeting with the Catholic bishops over the coming weeks, along with other patrons, including ETB representatives, in a bid to “reinvigorate” the divestment process.
“My aim will be to ensure that we can announce a speeding up of divestments before the end of this year, along with a roadmap for advancing this agenda over the next year or two.”
Her predecessor Ruairí Quinn had been known in some quarters as “Minister for Educate Together”, given his support for that patron.
However, when asked whether the ETB model had been neglected to date, she said: “I don’t agree that my predecessor had necessarily anything against community national schools.”
She said that Mr Quinn had set up the framework for their creation, and she now wished to “rejuvenate” that initiative.
"Educate Together has done enormous work over recent years to improve the choice available to parents in Ireland. They deserve our thanks and our recognition.
“However, as you are demonstrating, they are not the only ones engaged in delivering greater diversity amongst our schools.
*This article was amended on September 28th, 2015