Parents are to be polled over the coming weeks on whether they want multi-denominational patrons to take over the running of Catholic schools.
The move forms part of a plan by Minister for Education Richard Bruton aimed at boosting choice for parents on where they send their children to school.
At present, about 90 per cent of the State's 3,300 primary schools remain under the patronage of the Catholic Church.
However, demand for non-denominational schools – such as those run by Educate Together – has been growing strongly in recent years.
Mr Bruton will announce on Monday that parents of pre-school children in 16 areas across the country will be surveyed on their school preferences.
Census data has been used to identify areas where there is most likely to be a demand for multi-denominational or non-denominational schools.
Efforts to divest schools of Catholic patronage and provide greater choice for parents have proven slow and divisive to date.
For example, only 10 schools were divested from Catholic patronage under an ambitious plan launched six years ago aimed at expanding choice for parents.
A revised plan drawn up by Mr Bruton last year differs by providing for the State to lease buildings from the church and to provide for “live transfers” of schools. It remains to be seen whether this will prove any more successful.
The areas to be surveyed include: part of Dublin 1; Skerries, Co Dublin; Bray, Co Wicklow; Athlone, Co Westmeath; Tullow, Co Carlow; Kinsale, Co Cork; Laytown/Bettystown/Mornington/Donacarney, Co Meath; Athenry, Co Galway; Kenmare/Sneem, Co Kerry; Claremorris, Co Mayo; Ballybofey/Stranorlar, Co Donegal; Ennis, Co Clare; Roscrea, Co Tipperary; Waterford city; Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan; and Edenderry, Co Offaly.
A second round of town selections and surveys of pre-school parents will be organised when the outcomes of the initial round of pilot surveys have been assessed.
The surveys will be conducted by city and county childcare committees on behalf of the relevant Education and Training Board.
Parents will have two weeks in which to complete the surveys, and all surveys are due to be completed by mid-June 2018.
The survey results will form the basis of discussions with the patron body or landowner in the area – the Catholic Bishop in most cases – concerning the transfer of patronage of an existing school to meet that demand.
The response by the landowner or patron to demand for greater diversity will be included in the report prepared by the Education and Training Board.
Mr Bruton said he believed this new process had "the potential to change the course of education in Ireland by providing a system which reflects the changing needs of families".
He added: “I urge all parties to engage in this process constructively, with a view to reaching solutions that achieve the wishes of all involved.”
Following the publication of the first round of reports, there will be consultation with local school communities over the transfer of patronage of an existing school to a new multi- or non-denominational patron.
Mr Bruton said identification of a new patron must reflect the wishes of parents and of the school community.
“In each case, I believe that the best way to achieve this will be to hold a public meeting where each prospective patron can make their case to the school community, followed by a vote of all parents within that school community .
Mr Bruton acknowledged that many denominational schools welcomed children of all beliefs and none.
However, he said more diversity was needed to meet the changing needs of our population.
“The new process will draw on the lessons from the previous model, such as the importance of live transfers and the downsides of having to await closures or amalgamations,” he said.
He also announced that an “early movers” provision would enable school communities which had already decided to seek a transfer of patronage – independent of the survey process – to request their existing patron to apply to the Minister for a direct transfer of patronage.
It is understood that a number of schools are considering transfers of patronage under this “early movers” provision of the schools’ reconfiguration process.