New plans to speed up the divestment of hundreds of schools from Catholic ownership have been announced by Minister for Education Richard Bruton.
The new initiative is aimed at encouraging religious organisations to transfer the patronage of more than 200 schools to other models such as State-run schools.
Mr Bruton says the Government will increase the number of multi-denominational schools to 400 by 2030 through a combination of new schools and an “accelerated process” of divestment for existing religious schools.
The Minister has written to Catholic bishops seeking their nominations to working groups which will develop detailed protocols for handing over new schools.
It is likely many primary schools will transfer to the patronage of Education and Training Boards (ETBs) which run Community National Schools, a relatively new form of State-backed school.
The Catholic church is well-disposed to Community National Schools, which provide an opportunity for faith-formation classes for a variety of different religions during the school day.
However, it highly uncertain whether the Minister’s targets will be met given that the new divestment process will be voluntary.
In addition, it is likely that school landowners – typically Catholic bishops – will need to consent to any transfers.
Under the plan, ETBs have been charged with identifying “towns or areas where there is likely to be demand from families for greater diversity”.
ETBs will also work with pre-school services to establish evidence of this demand among the cohort of pre-school parents using surveys.
There will then be discussions between individual ETBs and the existing landowners concerning the possible transfer of existing schools.
Each ETB will prepare a report for the department outlining the levels of demand within their areas and the responses of the existing patrons, and the reports will be published on the department’s website.
“In most cases it is envisaged that transfer would be by way of voluntary live school transfer, rather than the amalgamation and closure model which was followed previously, with all of the complications and legal difficulties and time delays involved,” the department states.
ETB Ireland general secretary Michael Moriarty welcomed Mr Bruton's plans but Educate Together expressed disquiet, noting the absence of prior consultation on formulating the scheme.
Its chief executive Paul Rowe said: “Educate Together is concerned that the new process suggests that a candidate body has been charged with running the selection process and there appears to be no robust process whereby the wishes of parents define the choice of school.
“The wishes of parents must be central to any new approach to addressing the need for change - their wishes cannot be ignored or sidelined.”
Mr Bruton said he believed the new process would be of major importance to the future of education in Ireland, and to providing a system which reflected the changing needs of families.
“I urge all parties to engage in this process constructively with a view to reaching solutions that achieve the wishes of all involved.”
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.